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Symbols of the Four Evangelists

The Four Evangelists are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the traditional authors of the New Testament Gospels that bear their names.

Since early Christianity, theologians and artists have delighted in finding parallels and connections between various aspects of the Bible, and the Four Evangelists have long been associated with the four "living creatures" who surround God's throne in Ezekiel and Revelation.

The symbolism of each of the Four Evangelists and their gospels - first established in the 5th century and little changed since - is as follows:

  Matthew Mark Luke John
Apocalyptic Creature winged human winged lion winged ox eagle
Symbolizes humanity, reason royalty, courage, resurrection sacrifice, strength sky, heavens, spirit
Theme of the Gospel manhood of Christ Christ as king Christ as priest and sacrifice Christ's divine nature
Gospel Begins With Christ's geneology from Abraham John the Baptist roaring like lion in the wilderness temple duties of Zacharias Christ as Logos

In the Bible

"Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, 'Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.'" (Revelation 4:6-8)

"As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings... As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle." (Ezekiel 1:4-10)

"Then I looked, and above the dome that was over the heads of the cherubim there appeared above them something like a sapphire, in form resembling a throne... Each one had four faces: the first face was that of the cherub, the second face was that of a human being, the third that of a lion, and the fourth that of an eagle. The cherubim rose up. These were the living creatures that I saw by the river Chebar." (Ezekiel 10:1,14-15)

History

The association between the Four Evangelists and four living creatures seems to have been made first by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c.120-202 AD), as part of an argument against heretics that there are only four gospels:

"It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the... "pillar and ground" of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side.... He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit....

For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. The first living creature was like a lion, symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second was like a calf, signifying His sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but the third had, as it were, the face as of a man - an evident description of His advent as a human being; the fourth was like a flying eagle, pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. " (Against Heresies, 3.11.8)

Other early theologians who made the symbolic association include St. Jerome (347-420) and St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD). Interestingly, all three writers applied the symbols to different evangelists, based on their varying interpretations of the animal symbols and the main themes of the Gospels.

Man is: Lion is: Ox is: Eagle is:
Irenaeus of Lyons Matthew John Luke Mark
Augustine of Hippo Mark Matthew Luke John
Jerome Matthew Mark Luke John

Jerome's interpretation is the one that stuck. For over 1,500 years, the Four Evangelists have been represented in art and theology as shown at the top of this article.

What to See

The symbols of the Four Evangelists turn up frequently in Christian art and architecture. They appear in illuminated manuscripts of the Bible, stained glass windows, and sculptures on churches.

Sometimes the animal symbols are shown next to the corresponding saint writing his Gospel, but more frequently the animals appear without their human counterparts, usually as a group of four.

The symbols of the Four Evangelists are not often seen separately, but a notable exception is in Venice, where St. Mark is the patron saint of the city and the winged lion is ubiquitous in local art.

On medieval churches, the Four Evangelists are typically seen above west portals and in east apses, especially around the enthroned figure of Christ in Glory in scenes of the Last Judgment.

When surrounding Christ, the winged man is usually at top left (Christ's right hand) with the eagle on the other side, and the two lower beasts below; the lion on the left taking precedence over the ox. This reflects the medieval idea of a hierarchy of "nobility" of beasts as well as the text of Ezekiel 1:10.

Article Sources

  1. Symbols of the Four Evangelists - Catholic Resources
  2. Four Evangelists - Wikipedia
  3. Archangels and Evangelists - Paradoxplace
  4. tympanum - Encyclopaedia Britannica

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