Words for Saintly Golden Light

By Maeve Maddox

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Everyone’s familiar with the word halo in the sense of a circle of light behind or above the head of a saintly person in a painting.

The word halo comes from a Greek word meaning “disk of the sun or moon.” The first recorded use in English of halo with the sense of “light around the head of a holy person or deity” is 1646. However, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and other non-Christian cultures used the symbol in art to denote divinity or prestige. Gods and rulers were often depicted with halos.

In addition to the halo, artists have used other symbols to denote saintliness or divinity. Writers may find some of the terms for these symbols useful in describing not just supernatural characters, but to convey certain effects of light.

The word nimbus is sometimes used as a synonym for halo, but it has the primary meaning of

a bright or luminous cloud or cloud-like formation supposedly enveloping or surrounding a deity or supernatural being” –OED

The aureole is another word sometimes used as a synonym for halo, but is frequently used to denote a light emanating from the entire body of the holy figure.

The OED offers this note on the definition of aureole:

Didron (Iconographie Chrétienne p. 109) by a strange blunder takes aureola for a diminutive of aura ‘emanation, exhalation,’ and defines it as a mantle of light emanating from and enveloping the body, as distinct from the nimbus, which he confines to the head. This definition, which reverses the historical use both of aureola and nimbus, is not accepted in France (see Littré), but has been copied by Fairholt, and various English Dictionaries.

A diminutive of Latin aureus “golden,” the aureole was used in medieval Christian art to indicate the heavenly crown earned by martyrs and virgins.

The mandorla is “an almond-shaped panel or decorative space, usually framing an image of Christ.” The name comes from the Italian word for “almond.”

One of the many definitions of glory is “the circle of light represented as surrounding the head, or the whole figure, of the Saviour, the Virgin, or one of the Saints.”

The OED gives the word gloriole as a synonym for both aureole and halo.

All of these terms have other uses. For example, nimbus comes from a word for cloud and, like halo, has weather applications as well.

You can see illustrations of the different types of saintly symbolism at these Wikipedia sites:
aureole and mandorla
Apollo with a halo

This site mentions an interesting use of the glory in religious art.

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3 Responses to “Words for Saintly Golden Light”

  • Barbara Youree

    Loved the article on Halo, plus! I ran it off to keep for reference, for who knows, I may need this info for a character in one of my novels.

  • Peach

    Heh. Call me immature, but I think authors who are trying to maintain a serious tone might want to avoid “gloriole.”

  • Brad K.

    I encountered “glory” as a halo reference in “Radiant Warrier”, I think, by Leo Frankowski. It was one of his Conrad Stargard books, about a modern Polish engineer transported to twelfth century Poland. Science fiction – who knew?

    The characters knelt on a mountain ledge, sunrise behind them, over a valley that frequently filled with mist – and each warrior saw his shadow blessed with a halo visible only to him. A disrespectful sailor noted that everyone going to sea or on the river notices the same thing if they look over the side, with the sun to their back.

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