I was recently perusing depictions of the Holy Spirit for an upcoming project and noticed a disturbing trend: The Holy Spirit often sports a slipping halo. This may seem at its greatest a non-issue. It may also seem an indicator of my stodgy artistic taste. It is, however, neither of these.
|Example of a tri-radiant nimbus swapped for a cross.|
If you’ve ever listened while I've given a presentation or have read my words on Christian symbolism, certainly the topic of the tri-radiant nimbus (halo) has been brought up. It is one of the most confessional visual devices used in the Church, yet it is also one of the most misunderstood.
A simple nimbus, if used in art, is always placed behind the head of a saint or angel or depiction of God. Because it is possible to have a multitude of figures in a painting, the tri-radiant nimbus was developed to distinguish depictions of God from humans and angels. Three rays within the nimbus indicate the figure is a Person of the Holy Trinity, and in so doing confesses Who exactly is indivisibly God. So, yes, The Lord, Jesus Christ can be shown with the tri-radiant nimbus. So, too, the hand of the Father can be shown with the same device, as well as depictions of the Holy Spirit.
Mention is sometimes made of a “cruciform nimbus,” but it is the result of ignorance and error. While it may be true that God is indivisible, it is also true that the Person of Christ did not share the cross with the Father or the Holy Spirit. The cross, in that regard, has always been associated with Jesus Christ. While the cross, in some respect, may be indirectly associated with the Father and the Holy Spirit, it makes a greater confession, by means of the tri-radiant nimbus, to state that each Person is, indeed, God.
But for some reason, the Holy Spirit’s halo sometimes “slips” so that a cross becomes visible. In fact, the only reason the cross has been used in a nimbus is that the errant artist assumed there was an arm of the cross behind the head instead of being satisfied that there were simply three rays. By sliding the halo to one side, it also fails in surrounding the head, as if confessing that this Person isn’t quite as holy.
|A dove of|
Of course, there are even more instances in which the Holy Spirit’s halo is discounted altogether. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. With one simple omission, the image drifts from the Divine into the realm of birds and bees. To make things worse, the dove might also be showing flying up toward heaven instead of descending with Divine inspiration. The result is a nice bird; a dove; a symbol of peace. It is circumspect fluff. If confessions are to be made, then the artist should confess as if his life depends on it.
And if you think my hackles are being raised for naught, then consider those who do not confess the Holy Spirit is a Person of the Holy Trinity; that the Holy Spirit is not true God. The Unitarians take this view and heretically run with it. It is therefore imperative to be cognizant of what we confess, not only in word and song, but on the very walls of our sanctuaries, as well.