I recently revisited the Trecento painting show at the Art Gallery of Ontario – Trecento being art historian talk for Italian paintings of the early fourteenth century, the age of Giotto di Bondone, who was kind of the Michelangelo of the period. Giotto and his generation were the fathers of early naturalism in painting, softening those strongly outlined Byzantine eyes, creating human expressions through colour and contour, bringing heaven down to earth. But there were some things that did not translate, as in the example of the Last Supper (from the Alte Pinakothek, below), chiefly the stuff and substance of halos and how to paint them. No matter the degree of air and atmosphere and light and shadow, for Giotto halos remained opaque gold salvers, mysterious aureoles made not of light but of pure, hard gold. I love the way the halos move with the heads and block out the figures behind them. For these artists halos were not light emanations signifying sanctity, but ornamental costume pieces worn in a solemn passion play.
Of course, halos are not exclusive to Christianity – Homer’s heroes evidently emanated light, and halos and nimbuses appear in Buddhist and Islamic art – sometimes in the form of rays of light and, in Asian art, as flickering, flame-like frames for heads and even entire bodies – not encased in fire but radiating wisdom, whether saints or potentates.
In the age of Fra Filippo Lippi and then Botticelli, halos became gossamer transparencies, like silken webs shimmering above the heads of the Virgin and Child, fragile as the wings of moths – made of delicate natural substances interwoven with air and light. Eventually halos disappeared altogether in Christian art, as artists like Michelangelo translated saints into superheroes – hulking, Herculean moody presences, partially made of darkness.
I miss Giotto’s simple view of hearty halos made of sterner stuff