(Latin, related to Nebula, nephele, properly vapour, cloud), in art and archaeology signifies a shining light implying great dignity. Closely related are the halo, glory, and aureole.
All such symbols originate in natural phenomena, scientifically accounted for in textbooks on physics. There are circular phenomena of light in drops or bubbles of water and in ice crystals which by the refraction of light reveal in greater or less degree the spectral colours. Of the accompanying phenomena the horizontal and vertical diameters, the "column of light", may be mentioned. The curious rings of light or colour similar to the above, which often form themselves before the iris of the eye even in candle light, are more gorgeous on the mountain mist (Pilatus, Rigi, and Brocken), if the beholder has the sun behind him; they surround his shadow as it is projected upon the clouds. The dewdrops in a meadow can produce an appearance of light around a shadow, without, however, forming distinct circles. Occasionally one even sees the planet Venus veiled by a disc of light. The phenomena of discs and broad rings are more usual in the sun and moon. The Babylonians studied them diligently (Kugler, "Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel", II, 1). The terminology of these phenomena is vague. The disc or circle around the sun can be correctly called "anthelia", and the ring around the moon "halo". A more usual name is "aureole", which in a restricted sense means an oval or elliptical ray of light like a medallion. If the brightness is merely a luminous glow without definitely forming ring, circle. or ellipse, it is usually spoken of as a "glory". The types in nature in which rays or beams of light with or without colour challenge attention, suggested the symbolical use of the nimbus to denote high dignity or power. It is thus that Divine characteristics and the loftiest types of humanity were denoted by the nimbus.
In poetry, this symbol of light is chiefly used in the form of rays and flames or a diffused glow. The Bible presents the best example: God is Light. The Son of God, the Brightness of His Father's glory (Hebrews 1:3). An emerald light surrounds God and His throne (Revelation 4:3), and the Son of Man seems to the prophet a flame of fire (Revelation 1:14 sq.). So also He appeared in His Transfiguration on Tabor. On Sinai, God appeared in a cloud which at once concealed and revealed Him (Exodus 24:16, sq.) and even the countenance of Moses shone with a marvellous light in the presence of God (Exodus 34:29, sq.). Such descriptions may have influenced Christian artists to distinguish God and the saints by means of a halo, especially around the head. They were also familiar with the descriptions of the classical poets whose gods appeared veiled by a cloud; e.g. according to Virgil, divinity appears "nimbo circumdata, succincta, effulgens" (bathed in light and shining through a cloud).
In the plastic arts (painting and sculpture) the symbolism of the nimbus was early in use among the pagans who determined its form. In the monuments of Hellenic and Roman art, the heads of the gods, heroes, and other distinguished persons are often found with a disc-shaped halo, a circle of light, or a rayed-fillet. They are, therefore, associated especially with gods and creatures of light such as the Phoenix. The disc of light is likewise used in the Pompeian wall paintings to typify gods and demigods only, but later, in profane art it was extended to cherubs or even simple personifications, and is simply a reminder that the figures so depicted are not human. In the miniatures of the oldest Virgil manuscript all the great personages wear a nimbus. The custom of the Egyptian and Syrian kings of having themselves represented with a rayed crown to indicate the status of demigods, spread throughout the East and the West. In Rome the halo was first used only for deceased emperors as a sign of celestial bliss, but afterwards living rulers also were given the rayed crown, and after the third century, although not first by Constantine, the simple rayed nimbus. Under Constantine the rayed crown appears only in exceptional cases on the coin, and was first adopted emblematically by Julian the Apostate. Henceforth the nimbus appears without rays, as the emperors now wished themselves considered worthy of great honour, but no longer as divine beings. In early Christian art, the rayed nimbus as well as the rayless disc were adopted in accordance with tradition. The sun and the Phoenix received, as in pagan art, a wreath or a rayed crown, also the simple halo. The latter was reserved not only for emperors but for men of genius and personifications of all kinds, although both in ecclesiastical and profane art, this emblem was usually omitted in ideal figures. In other cases the influence of ancient art tradition must not be denied.
The Middle Ages scarcely recognized such influence, and were satisfied to refer to the Bible as an example for wreath and crown or shield shaped discs as marks of honour to holy personages. Durandus writes:
"Sic omnes sancti pinguntur coronati, quasi dicerunt. Filiae Jerusalem, venite et videte martyres cum coronis quibus coronavit eas Dominus. Et in Libro Sapientiae: Justi accipient regnum decoris et diadema speciei de manu Domini. Corona autem huiusmodi depingitur in forma scuti rotundi, quia sancti Dei protectione divina fruuntur, unde cantant gratulabundi: Domine ut scuto bonae voluntatis tuae coronasti nos" (Thus all the saints are depicted, crowned as if they would say: O Daughters of Jerusalem, come and see the martyrs with the crowns with which the Lord has crowned them. And in the Book of Wisdom: The Just shall receive a kingdom of glory, and a crown of beauty at the hands of the Lord, and a crown of this kind is shown in the form of a round shield. because they enjoy the divine protection of the Holy God, whence they sing rejoicing: O Lord, Thou hast crowned us with a shield of Thy goods-will.) (Rationale divin. offic., I, 3, 19, sq.).
Furthermore the Middle Ages are almost exclusively accredited with the extension of symbolism inasmuch as they traced, sometimes felicitously, allusions to Christian truths in existing symbols, of which they sought no other origin. Durandus adds to the passage quoted above, the nimbus containing a cross, usual in the figures of Christ, signifying redemption through the Cross, and the square nimbus which was occasionally combined with it in living persons, to typify the four cardinal virtues. Judging by the principal monuments, however, the square nimbus appears to be only a variant of the round halo used to preserve a distinction and thus guard against placing living persons on a par with the saints. The idea of the cardinal virtues, the firmness of a squared stone, or the imperfection of a square figure as contrasted with a round one was merely a later development. In the cross nimbus the association of the nimbus with an annexed cross must be conceded historical; but that this cross is a "signum Christi crucifixi" Durandus probably interprets correctly.
As stated above the nimbus was in use long before the Christian era. According to the exhaustive researches of Stephani it was an invention of the Hellenic epoch. In early Christian art the nimbus certainly is not found on images of God and celestial beings, but only on figures borrowed from profane art, and in Biblical scenes; in place of the simple nimbus, rays or an aureole (with the nimbus) were made to portray heavenly glory. Hence it follows that the Bible furnished no example for the bestowal of a halo upon individual saintly personages. As a matter of fact the nimbus, as an inheritance from ancient art tradition, was readily adopted and ultimately found the widest application because the symbol of light for all divine, saintly ideals is offered by nature and not infrequently used in Scripture. In contemporary pagan art, the nimbus as a symbol of divinity had become so indefinite, that it must have been accepted as something quite new. The nimbus of early Christian art manifests only in a few particular drawings, its relationship with that of late antiquity. In the first half of the fourth century, Christ received a nimbus only when portrayed seated upon a throne or in an exalted and princely character, but it had already been used since Constantine, in pictures of the emperors, and was emblematic, not so much of divine as of human dignity and greatness. In other scenes however, Christ at that time was represented without this emblem. The "exaltation" of Christ as indicated by the nimbus, refers to His dignity as a teacher and king rather than to His Godhead. Before long the nimbus became a fixed symbol of Christ and later (in the fourth century), of an angel or a lamb when used as the type of Christ. The number of personages who were given a halo increased rapidly, until towards the end of the sixth century the use of symbols in the Christian Church became as general as it had formerly been in pagan art.
Miniature painting in its cycle represents all the most important personages with haloes, just as did the Virgil codex, so that the continuity of the secular and Christian styles is obvious. This connection is definitively revealed when royal persons, e.g., Herod, receive a nimbus. Very soon the Blessed Virgin Mary always, and martyrs and saints usually, were crowned with a halo. More rarely the beloved dead or some person conspicuous for his position or dignity were so honoured. Saints were so represented if they constituted the central figure or needed to be distinguished from the surrounding personages. The nimbus was used arbitrarily in personification, Gospel types, and the like. Official representations clearly show a fixed system, but outside of these there was great variety. Works of art may be distinctly differentiated according to their birthplace. The nimbus in the Orient seems to has e been in general use at an early period, but whether it was first adopted from ecclesiastical art is uncertain. In general the customs of the East and West are parallel; for instance, in the West the personifications appear with a nimbus as early as the third century and Christ enthroned no later than in the East (in the time of Constantine). Their nature makes it apparent that in every department of plastic art the nimbus is more rarely used than in painting.
The form of the symbol was first definitely determined by Gregory the Great who (about 600) permitted himself to be painted with a square nimbus. Johannus Diaconus in his life of the pope, gives the reason: "circa verticem tabulae similitudinem, quod viventis insigne est, preferens, non coronam" (bearing around his head the likeness of a square, which is the sign for a living person, and not a crown.) (Migne, "P.L.", 75, 231). It appears to have already been customary to use the round nimbus for saints. In any event the few extant examples from the following centuries show that, almost without exception only the living, principally ecclesiastics, but also the laity and even women and children, were represented with a square nimbus. The aureole, that is the halo which surrounds an entire figure, naturally takes the shape of an oval, though if it is used for a bust, it readily resumes the circular form. The radiation of light from a centre is essential and we must recognize the circle of light of the sun-god in ancient art as one of the prototypes of the aureole. The medallion form was for a long time in use among the ancient Romans for the Imagines clipeata. The gradations of colour in the aureole reveal the influence of Apocalypse 4:3, where a rainbow was round about the throne of God. Indeed, in very early times the aureole was only used in representations of God as the Dove or Hand, or of Christ when the divinity was to be emphatically expressed.
In early Christian times (as now) the round nimbus was by far the most usual designation of Christ and the saints. The broad circle is often replaced by the ring of light or a coloured disc, especially on fabrics and miniatures. In pictures without colour the nimbus is shown by an engraved line or a raised circlet, often by a disc in relief. In the aureole blue indicates celestial glory, and it is used in the nimbus to fill in the surface, as are yellow, gray, and other colours while the margins are sharply defined in different tints. In many haloes the inner part is white. In mosaics, since the fifth and sixth centuries, blue has been replaced by gold. From this period also, the frescoes show a corresponding yellow as seen for instance in paintings in the catacombs. Gold or yellow prevails in miniatures, but there is a great deal of variety in illustrated books. Blue as a symbol of heaven has the preference, but gold, which later became the rule, gives a more obvious impression of light. The explanation of the cross nimbus variety is obvious. Since the sixth century it has characterized Christ and the Lamb of God, but occasionally it is given to the other Persons of the Trinity. In connection with it, in the fourth and fifth centuries there was a monogram nimbus. The cross and the monogram of Christ were beside or above the head of Christ and the Lamb. In the fifth century they were brought to the upper edge of the nimbus and finally both were concentrically combined with it. In more recent times the monogram and the monogram nimbus have become more rare. The letters Alpha and Omegain Scripture) for Christ and M and A for Mary, were intended for monograms and frequently accompanied the nimbus.
In order to understand the nimbus and its history, it is necessary to trace it through the different branches of art. The frescoes in the catacombs have a peculiar significance inasmuch as they determine the period when the nimbus was admitted into Christian art. The numerous figures lacking this symbol (Christ, Mary, and the Apostles) show that before Constantine, representations of specifically Christian character were not influenced by art traditions. Only pictures of the sun, the seasons, and a few ornamental heads carried a nimbus at that date. The single exception is found in a figure over the well-known "Ship in a Storm" of one of the Sacrament chapels. But it is to be observed that in this case we are not dealing with a representation of God, but merely with a personification of heavenly aid, which marked a transition from personifications to direct representations of holy personages. The figure seems to be copied from pictures of the sun god. On the other hand, several pictures of Christ in the catacombs, dating from the fourth century, indicate the period when the nimbus was first used in the way familiar to us. Besides the Roman catacombs others, especially that of El Baghaouat in the great Oasis of the Libyan desert, must be taken into account. For the period succeeding Constantine, mosaics furnish important evidence since they present not only very numerous and usually definite examples of the nimbus, but have a more official character and give intelligent portrayals of religious axioms. Although allowance must be made for later restorations a constant development is apparent in this field. The treatment of the nimbus, in the illuminating and illustrating of books, was influenced by the caprices of the individual artist and the tradition of different schools. In textiles and embroidery the most extensive use was made of the nimbus, and a rich colour scheme was developed, to which these technical arts are by nature adapted. Unfortunately the examples which have been preserved are only imperfectly known and the dates are often difficult to determine.
Sculpture presents little opportunity for the use of the nimbus. In some few instances, indeed, the nimbus is painted on ivory or wood carvings but more often we find it engraved or raised in relief. Figures with this emblem are rare. On the sarcophagi we find that Christ and the Lamb (apart from the sun) alone appear with a circle or disc, the Apostles and Mary, never. In ivory neither Mary nor Christ is so distinguished.
In the course of centuries the Christian idea that God, according to Holy Scripture the Source of Light and Divine things, must always be given a halo. became more pronounced. This applied to the three Divine Persons and their emblems, as the Cross, Lamb, Dove, Eye, and Hand; and since, according to Scripture, saints are children of Light (Luke 16:8; John 12:36), as such they should share the honour. Preference was shown for the garland or crown (corona et gloriae corona) of Christ which was also bestowed by God as a reward upon the saints, either spiritually in this life or in the Kingdom of Heaven (Psalm 20:4; Hebrews 2:7 sq.). Garlands and crowns of glory are frequently mentioned in the Bible (1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 4:4, etc.). The nimbus also takes the form of a shield to emphasize the idea of Divine protection (Ps. v, 13). A truly classic authority for the explanation of the nimbus may be found in Wis., v, 17: the Just shall "receive a kingdom of glory, and a crown of beauty at the hands of the Lord: for with His right hand He will cover them, and with His holy arm He will defend them." (In Greek, "Holds the shield over them".) Whereas in pagan art, the rayless nimbus signified neither holiness nor Divine protection but merely majesty and power, in Christian art it was more and more definitely made the emblem of such virtue and grace, which emanating from God, extends over the saints only. Urban VIII formally prohibited giving the nimbus to persons who were not beatified. Since the eighteenth century the word "halo" has been incorporated into the German language. In Western countries John the Baptist is the only saint of the Old Testament who is given a halo, doubtless because before his time the grace of Christ had not yet been bestowed in its fullness.
We have already found that the aureole was be considered exclusively a device of Christian art, especially as it was reserved at first for the Divinity, and later extended only to the Blessed Virgin. Instead of simple beams it often consists of pointed flames or is shaded off into the colours of the rainbow. This form as well as the simple nimbus, by the omission of the circumference, may be transposed into a garland of rays or a glory. A glory imitating the sun's rays was very popular for the monstrances, in other respects the lunula suggests the nimbus only because the costliness of the material enhances the lustre. The aureole obtained the Italian name of mandorla from its almond shape. In Germany the fish was agreed upon for the symbol of Christ, or a fish bladder if it had the shape of a figure 8. God the Father is typified in later pictures by an equilateral triangle, or two interlaced triangles, also by a hexagon to suggest the Trinity. If there is no circle around the cross nimbus, the three visible arms of the cross give the same effect. Occasionally the mandorla is found composed of seven doves (type of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost), or of angels. The latter are used in large pictures of the Last Judgment or heaven, for instance in the "glories" of Italian domes. In painting, haloes of cloud are sometimes used for delicate angel heads, as in Raphael's works. Angels also form a nimbus around the head of the Mother of God. She is also given the twelve stars of Apocalypse 12:1. Saint John Nepomucene has five or seven stars because of the great light which hovered over his body when he was drowned in the Moldau by order of King Wenceslaus. Artists have developed many varieties of the nimbus and aureole. Since the Renaissance it has been fashioned more and more lightly and delicately and sometimes entirely omitted, as the artists thought they could suggest the characteristics of the personage by the painting. It is true that the nimbus is not intrinsically a part of the figure and at times even appears heavy and intrusive. A distinguishing symbol may not, however, be readily dispensed with and with the omission of this one the images of the saints have often degenerated into mere genre pictures and worldly types. A delicate circlet of light shining or floating over the head does not lessen the artistic impression, and even if the character of Christ or the Madonna is sufficiently indicated in the drawing, yet it must be conceded that the nimbus, like a crown, not only characterizes and differentiates a figure but distinguishes and exalts it as well.
APA citation. (1911). Nimbus. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11080b.htm
MLA citation. "Nimbus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11080b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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