The symbol that spread around the world

Then, with the growing acceptance of Christianity in the Roman Empire, artists began to represent Jesus with a halo, now regarded as the highest symbol of divinely sanctioned authority. This new arrival in Christian iconography occurred from around the 300s AD, more than two centuries after it had appeared in Buddhism. It was a signal of Christianity’s metamorphosis from a marginalised religion to an official power structure in the west.

The halo has stuck in Christian art ever since, although it has undergone some adaptation over the years. God the Father can sometimes be seen crowned with a triangular halo, Jesus a cross-shaped halo and living saints a square halo.

Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism peacefully coexisted in India in the first millennium AD, and the three religions shared ideas and artistic iconography, including haloes. The earliest sculpted representations of haloes in Indian religious art come from the two great centres of art production, Gandhara (on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan) and Mathura (90 miles south of Delhi).

Trading in ideas

In late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Gandhara stood at the centre of an immense network of trading routes that stretched to China in the east and the Mediterranean in the west. Buddhist monasteries appeared along the key junctures of the trade highways to serve as religious versions of caravanserais. They offered a place for merchants to rest, pray and recuperate, and became the springboards from which Buddhism spread overland to China, where artists replicated the religion’s iconography. By the 500s AD, haloes were appearing in art in Korea and Japan, indicating the arrival of Buddhism in these regions too.

The same dissemination occurred for Hinduism which spread across Asia via overland and maritime trade paths, bringing religious attitudes and artistic styles to Indonesia, Malaysia and other South East Asian territories.

These wide-spread arteries of trade, which linked east to west in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, are often referred to as the “Silk Roads”, after the luxury goods shipped along them. But alongside exotic merchandise, these routes also transported religions, knowledge and iconography. The disc halo is an icon of this dynamic interchange of ideas that existed in the distant past. It started life as a Zoroastrian sign of solar divinity but was spread across Eurasia by ancient empires and trade networks that connected the edges of the known world. In the 21st Century, it is also a powerful reminder of humanity’s shared cultural heritage.

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