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The ancient, secular reason why saints are shown with halos

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And did you know that not all halos are circular? The different shapes convey different meanings.

In Western culture, halos are widely encountered but perhaps poorly understood artistic symbols. The golden circular disk can be seen everywhere, in cartoons, the newspaper, movies, emoticons, and even on a box of oranges.

While most know what it is, few know where it came from. What’s fascinating is that its history is quite ancient and surprisingly secular.

In Homer’s Iliad it is described how “Athene flung her tasseled aegis over [Achilles’] broad shoulders, shed a bright golden mist about his head, and made a fiery glare blaze from the man … the blaze shone from Achilles’ head to the heavens.”

Elsewhere in Greek literature a golden light is seen radiating around the head of military heroes or divine gods.

This occurrence was naturally translated into artistic representations of Greek literature and Romans continued the tradition, making the golden light into a disk that appeared behind the head.

At first Christians did not use the halo to identify holy people or angelic beings, but only when they were borrowing characters from Greek literature to portray Christian concepts. Rays of light were more common and typically reserved for Jesus Christ.

Halos were also used at the time in the Roman Empire to identify emperors in art and were more associated with earthly dignity than heavenly favor.

It was not until the 4th century that the halo was used in Christian art to identify heavenly persons. God, being the source of light, was naturally depicted with a halo of light, and over time other saintly figures were depicted with a similar light emanating from them.

Saints were more commonly depicted with laurel wreaths or crowns around their heads, but as time progressed, artists blended the two traditions and the result was a golden circular crown.

Later on there developed several different types of halos. A triangular halo was used to identify members of the Trinity, while the circular halo was reserved for saints and angels. A square halo was sometimes used to identify people who were still living, such as donors of artistic projects. Hexagonal halos were developed as well, to distinguish virtues and allegorical figures.

Over the centuries artists began to depict saints in a more realistic way and the use of the halo declined, decreasing in size until it finally disappeared in most religious paintings. However, since the halo is such a common element in the most widely known pieces of Western art, the symbol has never been fully erased and remains an essential part of culture to the present day.

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