Sunday, February 21, 2010


Here is a subject with a number of puzzles attached to it,
for one finds no haloes in Egyptian art, or Greek, or in Roman art until after Augustus.
Then haloes appear fleetingly in Mithraic cults from Persia, and encircling the
heads of maenads in the House of Mysteries in Pompeii. For the most part, though,
it is what separates Christian art from pagan.( As a word, "halo'
shares a root with heal, holy, wholesome, and hallow.)
Initially, haloes are not always round, but are sometimes the shapes of the
Byzantine mandorlas in which a Christ as Pantocrator may appear. Also
such shapes as are made by angelic wings when folded in adoration. The round halo is found more consistently
in Buddhist than in Christian arts, perhaps for reasons of stricter iconic codification.
Both in Japanese and in Indian art, the halo will seem more flower-like,more
like a lotus, than ever appears in Christian Art.
Flame-form haloes appear around the wooden protective deities of Japanese
Temples, in Tibetan Buddhist art--an example would be Mahakala--
and encircling the veiled face of Mohammed as he ascends to Heaven on the back of
Buracq in Persian miniatures of the Safavid Period.
In Christian art, the battle between east and west, between the Roman Catholic
and the Eastern Orthodox church may be seen in haloes. The incidence of
gold leaf is an indicator, not only of the tension between east and west, but between
the late Gothic and the Early Renaissance. Late Gothic uses it, as in
Duccio and Cimabue. Giotto the naturalist is impelled into the expedient
of what I call the Streetlight halo.
The Streetlight halo looks much as if Jesus or Mary or some saint stood in front
of a streetlight, which follows their head around. Some are plain, like a moth ball;
some are surrounded by a nimbus of a rainbow, or a delicately crafted
etched gold halo-ring, the halo's crystallized rays.. There is always the
hard-to-negotiate question of how far does the halo go when the head is bent
in prayer, which is one of those places where naturalism will conspire with absurdity.
Jean Colombe, who completed the TRES RICHES HEURES OF JEAN DE BERRY
depicts the saints in heaven from behind, in great assemblage. Their haloes
look like newly minted coins. Michelangelo tries to ignore the subject
Leonardo employs an array of stylistic evasive-devices, Raphael 's are a repertoire
of stylistic solutions according to the type of work. He has a Perugino-type halo, and
a back-lite halo--the escape of St. Peter in the Vatican--and
a ring of filleted gold around the Madonna halo. Titian's are atmospheric,
Caravaggio's are a sudden shaft of light. Rembrandt finds the holy light within the face.
It may shine into the surround but it is no longer almost an object but
a look.

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