Symbolism in Art: The Glory, Aureole and Nimbus

The glory, aureole and nimbus all represent light and brightness, and are the symbols of sanctity. The nimbus surrounds the head, the aureole encircles the whole body, and the glory is the union of the nimbus and aureole. The nimbus belongs to all holy persons and saints as well as to the representations of divinity. The aureole, strictly speaking, belongs only to the persons of the Godhead; but the Virgin Mary is invested with it

  • when she holds the Saviour in her arms
  • in pictures of the Assumption
  • when she is represented as the intercessor for himanity at the last judgment
  • when represented as the woman of the Apocalypse

The aureole has also been used as a symbol of the apotheosis of holy persons, but this is a degeneration from its original design and the use assigned it in ancient traditions. The glory also belongs especially to God and the Virgin.

The oblong aureole is called in Latin vesica piscis; in Italian, the mandorle (almond).

The cruciform or triangular nimbus, or the figure of a cross in the nimbus, belongs properly to the persons of the Trinity, the nimbus of saints and lesser beings should be circular.

A square nimbus is used for persons still living when the representation was made.

The hexangonal nimbus is for allegorical personages.

These symbols did not appear in Christian art until the fifth century, and during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they disappeared. They are, however, employed in the present day, although not with the careful distinction in the employment of the various forms which characterized their earliest use.

The color of these symbols in painting is golden, of that which represents light; in some instances, in miniatures or on glass, they are of various colours. Didron believes these to be symbolical, but is not sure of the signification of the colours.

A Handbook of Christian Symbols and Stories of the Saints as Illustrated in Art, by Clara Erskine Clement Waters, 1891