Evidence for haloes in pre-Christian art

Date: 24 Jul, 2009
Posted by: admin
In: christianity, faith & religion

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This story at Slashdot on emanation of visible-spectrum light from humans started a thread on haloes and raised suggestions about their pre-Christian origins. Here’s one of my replies with a little background research included. To avoid circular argument don’t quote me in Wikipedia, feel free to follow links and use sources found, and report back!

Haloes in pre-Christian art

Evidence for haloes as a pre-Christian artistic device

pbhj: Your comment appears to say that haloes were widely used in pre-Christian religious depictions. That is not established in your quoted source. […]

Smoker2: Just because you looked in the wrong place doesn’t mean they don’t exist.


I looked at the source you mentioned first, it didn’t support your statement, I asked for expansion. Nor did I say they didn’t exist, nor even that I’d looked in the right places. I’ve been trawling around lots of sites looking for pre-Christian images of haloes as everyone says they were widely used by everybody in depictions all over before CE. Yours is the first hint of actually imagery.

The pictures from Taq-e Bostan (eg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taq-e_Bostan, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithra, http://static.newworldencyclopedia.org/1/10/ArdashirII_.jpg) are either Ardashir I or II. Again, I can’t find a better image but if you notice each of the old-king, new-king and priest wear crowns/helms with what appears to be a fabric band (wide ribbon) extending down, on the right 2 images this comes down in drapes from the central crown on the left images it appears to hang from the ray-like crown (reminiscent of Aztec headdresses). In the other images Ardashir’s crown appears to have an ostrich feather or similar. It seems a leap to suppose that only one of the crowns depicted is an artistic device.

The fabric pieces can be seen best in images like http://flickr.com/photos/37514330@N00/3202629664 [or http://static.panoramio.com/photos/original/16084455.jpg] which unfortunately doesn’t include the priest (Izad Mithra, or in the Taq-e Bostan page it’s said to be Izad Bahram; Izad being the Zoroastrian form of Yazata which means “worshipful” and some render as “god”).

It’s the best I’ve seen however, a good find, dating from 300BCE around Persia. I’d want to see other instances of “haloes” in the Persian culture of the time to be convinced on this, as like I said I think it’s just a picture of a headpiece.

And you suck at reading too, if you didn’t even follow the link [home.comcast.net/~taoistresource/art_halo.html] in the “quoted source” you complain about.

You did say “according to this page” and not “according to links on this page”. Obviously being an illiterate makes it hard for me to check your post to be sure, perhaps you could do that?

Buddhist art and writings don’t appear to exist from before about 100-200AD the canon of Buddhist lore being passed down orally since 400BCE. Whilst that link shows images it doesn’t date the images, so establishing a date from them is impossible. They appear mainly to be Thangka which date from a Nepalese influence in 600AD.

The greek image of apollo is one I know, it’s about 200AD IIRC (certainly post-Christian). The others look like standard depictions of Helios, being the sun after all, they’re more than likely CE. The naive image at the bottom is similar in showing gods of the Sun, Dawn and Morning Star, that they should be shining is not necessarily a depiction of deity/holiness but a simple reflection of their purpose – but they’d be relevant if dated early.

Hindu art is full of haloes, eg http://www.hindu.com/fline/fl2503/stories/20080215250306500.htm the end of that page shows a Jaina shrine from 900AD. “Hindu art” by T. Richard Blurton states that imagery of Vishnu appeared in the “early centuries AD” and gives examples of some early known images of Vishnu and Krishna as 4th and 6th century CE (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xJ-lzU_nj_MC&pg=PA114 , 114+ particularlty 115). So no early haloes there.

the concept was used earlier in a lot of other historical religious art

You’d think then as you know it was used “earlier” in “a lot” of art that you’d have a lot of dated examples. We’re on one possible so far …

You may say it’s a sun disk, it looks like a halo to me. I’ve seen several images of christ with similar “haloes”

The Egyptian god Ra usually has a sun disk, a pretty classic example is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ra. The orb of the sun rests immediately and wholly above the head appearing as a vertical circle. I’ve never seen a Christian image of Jesus like this. Can you point me to one. The difference in meaning of the symbols is quite stark in one the sun is the source of light, in the other the person is the source of light as a metaphor for power / holiness / insight / divinity etc.. In the case of Jesus it is often considered to be an artistic device to show the presence of Christ as /logos/. For avoidance of doubt a horizontal disc, or ring, is not a sun disk.

Further study

I’d like to extend this to study the Bimaran reliquery (in the collections of the British Museum as of 2009) which quite clearly shows a figure with a halo as is dated from 60AD according to the British Museum and 50AD according to others and possibly from 30BC-200AD as a range. The Bimaran reliquery comes from the Eastern parts of modern Afghanistan. It differs remarkably from the traditionally Buddhist iconography of the [probably] slightly later Kanishka casket (127AD).

The Bimaran reliquery has an inscription including the phrase “sarvabudhana puyae” which phrase is discussed (separate to the reliquery) in Epigraphical Hybrid Sanskrit” by Th Damsteegt, p.159-163.

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