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Holy Adornment

A brief exploration of halos, crowns, and other religious headwear in Christian art

When a god or other sacred figure takes human form in art, how do artists use visual cues to indicate a heavenly being rather a mere mortal? Across many cultures and religions, artists have taken a surprisingly similar approach. Throughout Christian art in particular, a golden or gilded halo signifies the sanctity of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and other saints.

The Nativity. Attributed to Zanobi Strozzi (Italian, 1412–1468) ca. 1433-34. Tempera and gold on wood. 7 3/8 x 17 1/8 in. Gift of May Dougherty King, 1983. 1983.490

 

The word halo comes from the Greek word halos. Homer described a light radiating from the heads of heroes in the Iliad, which predates the Bible, an effect well represented in ancient Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic art.

For the viewer of these religious artworks, the halo acts as a reminder that the figures shown are holy and pure. Like a crown, the halo also denotes a divine power. In Christianity, the halo is especially important when figures such as Jesus are dressed in humble garments or shown interacting with ordinary humans. This relieves the artist of the need to label the figures, which would have been unintelligible to an illiterate audience anyway; the addition of the halo adds even more drama and beauty to a composition rather than detracting from it.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia) (Italian, 1398–1482) ca. 1435. Tempera and gold on wood. Overall 15 1/2 x 18 1/8 in. Gift of George Blumenthal, 1941. 41.100.4

 

The halo can take many forms—floating about the head or sitting atop it like a crown—and sometimes features radiant beams of light that spring from the halo towards the heavens. Some artists adopted crowns, modeling them to look like those worn by royalty, in lieu of the halo. This approach lends opulence to the scene and, in works such as Fouquet’s Virgin and Child, reflects the period’s splendor and gives the artist a chance to show off his skills in painting lustrous pearls and gleaming gemstones.

 

Virgin and Child (Melun diptych) by Jean Fouquet (French, died 1481), 1450. Tempera on panel. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. REL. 0974

 

The halo is even translated into real-life headwear designated for a select few. The papal tiara functions similarly, and is worn to signify the divine power and proximity to God held only by the pope. There have been many papal tiaras—tradition dictates that a new tiara be created for the coronation of each pope, usually adorned with gold and gemstones. Other church leaders, including bishops and abbots, wear simplified, though similarly shaped caps called mitres on holy days, funerals, the celebration of the sacraments, and other solemn Sundays and feast days. 

A Bishop Saint. Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro) (Italian, ca. 1395–1455) ca. 1425. Tempera on wood, gold ground. Overall 6 1/4 x 6 1/8 in. Bequest of Lucy G. Moses, 1990. 1991.27.2

 

Scroll down to see more stunning examples of Christian religious head ornaments as imagined by fashion designers currently being exhibited in Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, on view at The Met through October 8. 

Shop the catalogue to see learn more and explore our Heavenly Bodies store to discover more products inspired by the exhibition.

Dolce & Gabbana (Italian, founded 1985). Domenico Dolce (Italian, born 1958). Stefano Gabbana (Italian, born 1962). Evening Dress, autumn/winter 2015–16 alta moda. Courtesy Dolce & Gabbana. Image by Katerina Jebb

Christian Lacroix (French, born 1951). Wedding Ensemble, autumn/winter 2009–10 haute couture. Courtesy Maison Christian Lacroix, Paris. Image by Katerina Jebb

Gianni Versace (Italian, founded 1978). Gianni Versace (Italian, 1946–1997). Evening Ensemble (back view), autumn/winter 1991–92. Courtesy Gianni Versace Archives. Image by Katerina Jebb

House of Dior (French, founded 1947). John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar 1960). “Madonna” Wedding Ensemble, autumn/winter 2005–6 haute couture. Courtesy Dior Heritage Collection, Paris. Image by Katerina Jebb

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