National Gallery of Art, Washington/Chester Dale Collection

Christ or Satan? In “Self-Portrait with a Halo” Gauguin’s massive head, with its characteristic aquiline profile, is set off from the painting’s scarlet background by the frame of a golden nimbus. Gauguin’s sardonic expression, downcast glance and sarcastic sneer emphasize the portraits ambiguous symbolism. Was Gauguin portraying himself as the Prince of Peace or the Prince of darkness?

Two large areas of flat intense color, blood-red and golden citron yellow, divide the painting horizontally. Armand Seguin, who met Gauguin in the peaceful Breton village of Le Pouldu, where Gauguin lived briefly with a circle of artist disciples, explained the use of red and yellow: “The painters at le Pouldu look at heraldry and at the Japanese, who teach them the direction and symbolism of colors. Red looks vertical to them: it is the blood that streams from the wound … [yellow] is the image of the sun, of life, of gold and its power …”

The stylized grapevine at lower left in the painting tapers into a swan, a symbol of the god Zeus (from the myth of Leda and the swan), which Gauguin often used to represent himself. The grapevine alludes to the metaphor of Jesus as the vine in John 15:5 from whose branches the disciples emanate. Its twisting shape also represents Satan in the guise of the serpent in Eden. The apples dangling at upper right recall the temptation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent expulsion from the Eden for partaking of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

The halo, hovering above Gauguin’s head, although traditionally associated with holiness, is enigmatic here. As the art historian Gertrude Grace Sill, explains, “Halos are the visual expression of a supernatural light, a mystical force. Familiar in Oriental as well as western art, halos form a symbolic crown …. The halo is the attribute of sanctity in Christian art, and identifies important personages. In eastern art, the halo was exclusively an attribute of power. In some early medieval miniatures, Satan and the seven-headed beast of the apocalypse wear halos as symbols of power, not holiness.” Thus, Gauguin depicts himself simultaneously as Christ and Satan.