The popular mental picture of an angel that most people have in modern American society almost invariably includes a circle of some sort floating above the head of that angel—whether the angel looks like a pretty lady, a “cherubic” baby, or even an angelic duck.
Usually the circle is a metallic golden ring, but in recent years, popular alternatives, especially for angel costumes, are circlets of tinsel or marabou feathers (connected by a thin wire to a headband to hold it on the head of the pseudo-angel.)
Did this concept of the floating halo being part of the “outfit” of an angel come from the Bible? If not, how and when did it become so pervasive in society?
The Bible says nothing about floating circles over the heads of any being. And thus we have to look elsewhere for the origin of this symbolism. That search takes us back to ancient pre-Christian art, and a pictorial symbol known as the nimbus.
Nimbus: Latin, rainstorm, cloud; probably akin to Latin nebula cloud
1 a : a luminous vapor, cloud, or atmosphere about a god or goddess when on earth b : a cloud or atmosphere (as of romance) about a person or thing
2 : an indication (as a circle) of radiant light or glory about the head of a drawn or sculptured divinity, saint, or sovereign
From a Catholic Encyclopedia (bolding added)
In the plastic arts (painting and sculpture) the symbolism of the nimbus was early in use among the pagans who determined its form. In the monuments of Hellenic and Roman art, the heads of the gods, heroes, and other distinguished persons are often found with a disc-shaped halo, a circle of light, or a rayed-fillet. They are, therefore, associated especially with gods and creatures of light such as the Phoenix. The disc of light is likewise used in the Pompeian wall paintings to typify gods and demigods only, but later, in profane art it was extended to cherubs or even simple personifications, and is simply a reminder that the figures so depicted are not human. In the miniatures of the oldest Virgil manuscript all the great personages wear a nimbus. The custom of the Egyptian and Syrian kings of having themselves represented with a rayed crown to indicate the status of demigods, spread throughout the East and the West. In Rome the halo was first used only for deceased emperors as a sign of celestial bliss, but afterwards living rulers also were given the rayed crown, and after the third century, although not first by Constantine, the simple rayed nimbus. Under Constantine the rayed crown appears only in exceptional cases on the coin, and was first adopted emblematically by Julian the Apostate. Henceforth the nimbus appears without rays, as the emperors now wished themselves considered worthy of great honour, but no longer as divine beings. In early Christian art, the rayed nimbus as well as the rayless disc were adopted in accordance with tradition. The sun and the Phoenix received, as in pagan art, a wreath or a rayed crown, also the simple halo. The latter was reserved not only for emperors but for men of genius and personifications of all kinds, although both in ecclesiastical and profane art, this emblem was usually omitted in ideal figures. In other cases the influence of ancient art tradition must not be denied.
…The nimbus of early Christian art manifests only in a few particular drawings, its relationship with that of late antiquity. In the first half of the fourth century, Christ received a nimbus only when portrayed seated upon a throne or in an exalted and princely character, but it had already been used since Constantine, in pictures of the emperors, and was emblematic, not so much of divine as of human dignity and greatness. In other scenes however, Christ at that time was represented without this emblem. The “exaltation” of Christ as indicated by the nimbus, refers to His dignity as a teacher and king rather than to His Godhead. Before long the nimbus became a fixed symbol of Christ and later (in the fourth century), of an angel or a lamb when used as the type of Christ. The number of personages who were given a halo increased rapidly, until towards the end of the sixth century the use of symbols in the Christian Church became as general as it had formerly been in pagan art.
Thus the nimbus was not really used by artists as a depiction of an actual glow that the artist believed would have necessarily have been visible “in person” to the human eye out in the real world. It was part of the history of iconography.
Iconography: …the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject
…the imagery or symbolism of a work of art, an artist, or a body of art
In other words, you might say that iconography is the use of standardized symbolic elements of pictures to impart information. When looking at a painting, the nimbus around some heads would be a clue to you that the individual was someone significant. The particular significance would depend on the culture and the period of the painting.
The iconographic symbol of the nimbus eventually became interchangeable with the word halo.
Halo: Latin halos, from Greek halOs threshing floor, disk, halo
1 : a circle of light appearing to surround the sun or moon and resulting from refraction or reflection of light by ice particles in the atmosphere
2 : something resembling a halo: as a : nimbus b : a region of space surrounding a galaxy that is sparsely populated with luminous objects (as globular clusters) but is believed to contain a great deal of dark matter c : a differentiated zone surrounding a central zone or object
3 : the aura of glory, veneration, or sentiment surrounding an idealized person or thing
By the time the Italian artist Giotto painted this scene in 1305, the use of the nimbus or halo around the heads of personages in Christian art work had indeed greatly increased. Here there are haloes around the heads of Jesus, His mother, Mary, other women and men disciples, and the angels in the sky.
But these haloes are not hovering above the heads of all of these figures. In fact, they appear almost as if they are circular golden plates placed behind each head. How did the halo get from this to the hovering little golden tube common today?
The first step to this change may have been when some artists began to realize how incongruous paintings of the backs of people who had a nimbus looked! In this painting of the Last Supper, also by Giotto around the same time, the apostles who have their backs to the viewer almost look like their noses are pressed into big golden dinner plates, rather than that their heads are surrounded by a glow. (The figure in yellow without a halo is Judas.)
In addition, early medieval paintings had very little “perspective” in the scenes. A flat plate behind the head of someone didn’t look too out of place, as everything in the picture was basically flattened also. But by the 1400s, artists were perfecting techniques that made scenes much more three dimensional and lifelike. This left the traditional nimbus around heads giving an even stronger sense of a flat plate in the picture, an element decidedly even more out of place.
This painting by an unidentified artist represents an early attempt to solve this problem. The painter literally approached the nimbus as if it were a circular plate, and tipped it on its side, foreshortening it to give the illusion of depth, and moving it to a spot above the head of the figure.
Another solution, arrived at by Raphael in this 1500 AD painting was to leave the nimbus behind the head, but remove all but the rim of it, leaving a hollow circle through which the background of the scene could be seen, maintaining the illusion of depth in that way.
And by combining these two techniques, it is easy to see how some artists eventually ended up with the circle floating above the head.
Eventually, some painters began dispensing with the halo altogether. The closer one gets to modern times, and the more realistic the environment and figures in the painting, the more common this approach became.
But the “great artworks” of Western Civilization from the thousand-year era from the fifth century to the fifteenth century have been so influential that they have dominated throughout history many of the subconscious assumptions of the average man of what angels look like—at least until the rise of the “New Age Angel” fad that now permeates American society.
Although it appears that the majority of artists—although not cartoonists!—in the 20th and 21st centuries have abandoned the iconic device of the nimbus or halo when depicting angels and other religious personages, it still thrives in particular in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic settings.
It is a Greek Orthodox tradition for artists to continue to create icons … pictorial representations of Christ, angels, and saints … for inspirational and worship use. The design and stylized features of such icons currently made by artists vary little from those of a thousand years ago, and continue to use the nimbus.
And a significant proportion of modern Roman Catholic art, such as this work by Arizona artist Enrique de la Vega, continues to include the nimbus, even though there is not the same level of rigid custom dictating this as there is in Orthodox art.
But there is no evidence from the Bible that real angels, supernatural messengers and servants of God, would have a halo if you saw them. The halo is strictly a humanly-invented idea that has made its way into the popular consciousness of mankind, based on pseudo-biblical art.