I once read somewhere that the 'halo' was inherited by Christianity from ancient worshippers of the Sun.  However, although this seems believable I never bothered to verify its historic credibility - something I suppose would not be that difficult, one way or the other.

It does make me wonder though, 'Where does the halo originate, or similarly the lights behind the portraits of 'holy' men in art, etc'?

I am specifically wondering at what point in history and for what meaning was the 'halo' 'first' used by Christians and was it 'new' or 'borrowed from pagan practice'? I am not interested if it should, or should not be used.


First you should read The Wikipedia article on the halo to get a good idea of the use of the halo in the past. You will see that it was indeed used by the Romans and possibly the Greeks as well as in Asian art. Wikipedia states (without citation) that it was first used in Christian art around the 4th Century. Roman art in particular used the halo to indicate divine personages, and initial use on Christian art was restricted to Christ. Given Christianity's intimate association with the Roman Empire in the 1-3rd century it is unlikely that the use of the halo was independently invented by Christianity.

The next thing you should realize is that the halo is simply an artistic convention. Early art was much more 'representational' than modern art. It was not intended to imply that holy figures literally had a glow around their head. It simply indicated who in the picture were 'holy' or 'divine' characters. Because of this it makes no sense to read anything into Christian artists use of the convention - it's simply a way to convey meaning to the the viewers of the art. It would make no more sense to denegrate Christian art for using it than to condemn a Christian comic book-writer for using 'speech bubbles'.

The halo fell out of favour when art transitioned to more realistic conventions.

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  • You provide some good summary info and decent reasoning about it - thanks. – Mike Aug 28 '12 at 5:40

The halo originated from the Pre-Islmaic Iranian faith of Zoroastrianism. They believed in the Idea of Farr, or "Divine Favor". this 'favor' was represented by a ring called the Hvrena which was given to the king by their gods, but if the king displeased the gods, it was taken away. This ring was guarded by the god Mithras, who was the god of Daylight. It was through the relation of the Hvrena with Mithras and a mistranslation of the word "Farr" which means glory, that brought about the idea that the halo, or ring of divine favor, was actually representing light. When Zoroastrianism traveled to the Roman Empire in the form of Mithraism, or the Mysteries of Mithras, the Hvrena was depicted as a halo on the head of Mithras. Christianity was developing at the same time as Mithraism, and artists would have seen halos in Mithraeum at the time. In the Roman Empire, it was common to practice more than one faith. Halos were not, however, used in Christian art until Mithraism was almost extinct.

My source for this is that I wrote a term paper about the origin of the Halo for my History of Christian Art course during my undergrad.

For more information on Farr and Hvrena, see this website: Encyclopedia Iranica.

For information on how it transitioned to Christian art, however, one needs to dig through many books, as no one has ever written a full book on this process.

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If you have no credible source for this idea, then why do you mention it? It is impossible to prove that the first iconographers to use halo didn't take inpirations from pagan imaginery.

In order to know if halo is compatible with christian faith, you have to look what is the meaning of light in Scriptures. You can see from many fragments (like The Gospel According to St Jonh the Theologian Prologue) that the light means the life-giving energy of God. We can see that Christ shone with light during His transfigurations. We see prophets seeing light during their revelations. This is why Christ is surrounded by halo in icons (in the icon of Transfiguration this halo is big and surrounds His whole body).

Transfiguration Icon

Also the holy men (I don't know why you use quotes here) could be seen shining this light. There is a wonderful example in this text: http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx

Father Seraphim replied: "I have already told you, your Godliness, that it is very simple and I have related in detail how people come to be in the Spirit of God and how we can recognize His presence in us. So what do you want, my son?"

"I want to understand it well," I said.

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: "We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don't you look at me?"

I replied: "I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain."

Father Seraphim said: "Don't be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am."

(i recommend to read the whole text)

So even if there was some pagan inspiration in this symbol (like e.g. clergy vestments taking inspiration from the roman officials dresses), it is now used for the christian meaning and is fully compatible with what Christianity teaches.

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  • The source I had about Sun worshippers did seem reputable but I was not interested enough to try and verify it. I added this to my post to clarify my interest. Its more of a history question than a moral one. I am specifically wondering at what point in history and for what meaning was the 'halo' first used by Christians and was it new or borrowed from pagan practice? I am not interested if it should, or should not be used. – Mike Aug 27 '12 at 6:48
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    I'm going to go with Moses, when he brought down the commandments. The "halo" as we see it in art is an attempt to portray the fact that light was emanating from their faces/heads. Therefore, Moses qualifies as the first one with a halo. – Ignatius Theophorus Aug 27 '12 at 14:29

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