Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Thursday 21 January |
Saint of the Day: St. Agnes
home iconArt & Culture
line break icon

There was a time in which square halos were a thing in Christian art

Pope John VII, mosaic detail, 705-06 CE, Vatican Museums

Daniel Esparza - published on 10/27/19

Round, cruciform, and even triangular halos are relatively common in Christian iconography, but square ones?

Halos (also referred to as aureoles or glorioles) have been used in religious, epic, and mythical iconography in many different traditions to represent sacred figures. In some cases, they have even been used to indicate the authority of a ruler or of a hero. In fact, Homer often describes seeing brilliant, supernatural light that seems to shine around the heads of heroes in battle.  

Christian art incorporated the use of halos, seemingly, in the 4th century. At first, only the figure of Christ would be seen showing either a cruciform halo (that is, an aureole with a cross within it) or some sort of radiant crown, as if the sun were shining behind his head, modeled after the image of the classic Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god.

Later, a triangular halo was sometimes given to the Father to symbolize the Trinity, and regular round halos were then typically used in images of saints, the Virgin Mary (whose halo would later evolve in Baroque art into a circle of twelve stars), and prophets of the Hebrew Bible.

But there are some images, especially since the 6th century in southern Italy, showing a square halo. This is indeed quite uncommon, and its use is due to very specific reasons.


Read more:
How geometry was used to express Christian truths in art

Square halos were often used to represent living donors who made possible the execution of a given work of art (namely, a mosaic or a church). Most of the characters we find surrounded by square halos are, in fact, popes and abbots, who commissioned the construction of a church, a public building, or some other work related to liturgical art. These square halos, then, are but an indication of a contemporary figure (with no implication of sanctity attached to them necessarily), to distinguish them from saints who might be accompanying them in the image. In fact, the square shape was understood in Christian art as representing the earth (with its four directions) and earthly existence, as opposed to the circle, understood to be a symbol of infinite existence and, hence, of eternal life.

ArtReligious symbolism
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in eight languages: English, French, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
Zoe Romanowsky
20-year-old filmmaker wins award for powerful 1-minute film about...
Cerith Gardiner
Meet the dad who's teaching basic skills on YouTube for kids with...
Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP
Reasons Catholics should read the Bible
Jorge Graña
Did you know Martin Luther King appreciated the Rosary?
Anna Gębalska-Berekets
Couple praises Padre Pio's recipe for a happy marriage
Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP
'An American Blessed': A documentary to thank God in 2021
Fr. Michael Rennier
What if you think you missed your calling in life?
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.