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 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 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.
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.
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.