By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
In various forms, the halo is a ubiquitous religious symbol. While most commonly seen in religious contexts such as gracing the head of Christ, a Catholic saint, or perhaps behind the head of the Buddha, the halo has also seeped into our popular culture as the title of the eponymous video game.
The word itself was derived from the Greek ἅλως, or halos, and refers to the disk of light that surrounds the sun and moon. The halo has been depicted in artwork and on coins in a variety of ways depending on the host culture.
Perhaps most recognizable to the Western World is the Christian halo, which appears as either a plain golden circle or a ring superimposed over a cross. The cruciform halo was, and still is, used to denote that the figure represents Christ, as can be seen on this Stamenon Nomisma of the Byzantine emperor Romanus III. Struck between 1028 and 1034 AD in Constantinople, it depicts an enthroned Christ with a cruciform halo on the obverse. However, the Virgin mother can be seen on the reverse with a standard halo crowning Romanus.
Haloes can also be depicted as a form of sunbeams or rays of light. Figures graced with this type of halo are often referred to as being “radiate nimbate” – radiate referring to the emanating rays and nimbate referring to the fact that the figure has a nimbus or halo.
This type of halo can seen on this billon tetradrachm of Antoninus Pius struck in Egypt during his regnal year 2 (138/9 AD). The tetradrachm depicts a radiate nimbate phoenix on the reverse. This was due to the phoenix’s immortality and pseudo-divinity, and the birds’ connection to the sun. Pius employed this imagery because the Great Sothic Cycle, the 1,461-year cycle that begins when the star Sirius rises on the same point on the horizon as the sun, began once again during 139 AD.
Since phoenixes are linked with rebirth and renewal, this was a fitting choice.
The third common type of halo that appears in numismatics, most commonly seen on Sasanian coins, is a burning circle of fire. Struck between 591 AD and 623 AD, this silver drachm depicts the last great Sasanian emperor Khusro II wearing his trademark winged crown on the obverse. However, on the reverse is depicted the Armenian fertility goddess Anahit with a flaming nimbus halo.
Despite the geographical disparity of origin, haloes are almost always employed to mark a figures’ divinity. In some cases, however–particularly in the late Western Roman Empire–it was used to signal royalty. This was mostly due to people attributing the monarch with divine, or semi-divine status.
This distinction can be seen very clearly on the reverse of this gold solidus struck by the emperor Constans between 337 and 340 AD in the Upper Pannonian city of Siscia. The design depicts a tryptic of the Augusti Constantius II and Constans looking at the haloed central figure of their father Constantine II, the Maximus Augustus. Not only does this halo designate the semi-divine nature of Constantine II’s authority, but it also denotes his rank as the senior Augustus.
Another unusual feature of this design is the fact that Constantine II was still alive when the coin was struck. When the figure with a halo is a real person, and not a religious deity or animal, they are usually deceased. This can be seen on this rare posthumous bronze AE of the Roman empress Faustina II struck by her husband Marcus Aurelius shortly after her death in 175 AD. On the obverse, the empress is depicted in the standard fashion as a draped bust.
On the reverse is an interesting tableau of the deceased and deified empress seated on the back of a flying peacock. As the symbol of Juno, queen of the gods, the peacock was fittingly associated with the earthly Roman empresses. Additionally, the fact that she is riding the bird symbolizes her ascent into heaven and her deification.
As an ancient symbol of divinity, radiate haloes are often thought to originally be artistic depictions of the Sumerian Melam or Zoroastrian Khvarenah, both of which are literal denotations of divine glory and brilliance.
The fact that haloes began appearing in fourth-century BCE pagan art across the ancient world, as far afield as India and Rome, is a sign that they were derived “from a common source” or “influential cult” somewhere in the Middle East (Ramsden, 1941, pg 124). The most commonly accepted theory today is that the halo, as depicted behind a figure’s head, can be traced back to the cult of Mithras, the Indo-Iranian god of light, whose cult first appeared around 1400 BCE in the Vedic texts. While circular depictions of divinity existed prior to Mithras–appearing, for example, around 2000 BCE when “rayed auras” were used in the Indus Valley city of Mohenjo-Daro or with the Sun Disk of the Egyptian god Ra–they were either depicted as floating above or as auras surrounding the figure’s entire body and are not quite the same as a halo (Wilson, 2021).
Interesting depictions of the both Mithras and the haloed Buddha can be found on coins from the ancient Indian Kushan Empire, struck in the second century AD. For example, on this gold stater of the emperor Kanishka, who reigned from 127/8 AD to 150 AD, the Buddha is depicted on the reverse wearing a long samghati robe with a double halo. The emperor was a devout Buddhist and was responsible for the popularization of Mahayana Buddhism, which revered the life of the Buddha as well as his spiritual teachings.
Not only are these coins of this series rare, but they are also culturally important due partially to the fact that Buddhists had only started depicting the Buddha in human form approximately 100 years prior to the coin being struck, with the first human image of the Buddha on the Bimaran Casket, dated to approximately 50 AD to 60 AD.
This gold dinar, also struck by Kanishka between 127/8 AD and 152 AD, depicts the emperor on the obverse in a similar fashion to the gold stater described above. However, on the reverse of this example can be seen the god Mithras. The radiate nimbate god is holding a short scepter and raising his right hand to the sky. Depicting Mithras on this coin is a testament to the empire’s religious tolerance.
Along with their deities, Kushan Kings were also depicted on coins with haloes. For example, this gold dinar struck between 151 AD and 190 AD by Huvishka in a Gandharan subsidiary mint, shows the nimbate, diademed, and crowned ruler as a half-length bust. In this case, the halo is a simple plain circle. The reverse design depicts the haloed god Pharo, also known as Hermes or Mercury. In ancient Indo-Persian culture, Pharo was the symbol of Khvarenah and the divine legitimacy of kingship.
The haloes use on Indian coins also predates the coins struck during the Kushan empire. For example, this silver drachm of Menander II, King of the Hellenistic Indo-Greek kingdom covering parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Northern India, depicts a haloed goddess Nike on the reverse. This rare coin, struck between 90 and 80 BCE, shows the blending of the Hellenistic and Indian culture that occurred in Bactria.
The halo did not become a Christian symbol until the mid-300s AD. While a signal that the religion was shifting from the margins to become the official religion of the West, the portrait of Christ would not appear on coins until 692 AD, when Justinian II issued a series of gold coins with Christ’s portrait on the obverse ringed by the legend “Jesus Christ, King of Kings”. Unlike contemporary Christian art, this portrait does not have a halo. Instead, there is a simple cross behind Christ’s head. It would be nearly 200 more years until Christ would actually appear on Byzantine Coinage with a cruciform halo when Basil I “The Macedonian” came to the throne in 867 AD.
This series depicts a large, haloed Christ figure that dominates the obverse. Seated in a throne, Christ holds a copy of the gospels and raises his hand in benediction. This image would become one of the most common depictions of Christ on Byzantine coinage until the empire’s collapse. On the reverse is a depiction of Basil I and the emperor Constantine jointly holding a patriarchal cross.
* * *
* * *
About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).