Friday, September 01, 2017 - Updated: 11:42 am
QUESTION: In a lot of church artwork, I see four symbols that are not easy to understand. Are they for the four Gospels or some other “four?”
ANSWER: In Christian art, groupings of four are somewhat common. In very early art, the four points of the compass were at times depicted to represent the Gospel of Jesus spread to the ends of the earth. In art depicting Old Testament themes, the four great prophets are often represented. This is usually Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. When church history is the theme, we frequently find the four great doctors of the Western church: Saints Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose and Gregory. In the Eastern church, the four great teachers described as doctors are seen as St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzus and St. Athanasius.
When the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were depicted in very early Christian art they were seen as four individuals holding books (to symbolize the Gospel each wrote). Somewhat later in art, they are depicted as winged figures in the form of a human, a lion, an ox and an eagle. These symbols have their origin in the winged creatures of the Book of Ezekiel’s vision (1:5-9) and from the New Testament Book of Revelation (4:6-8).
The individual evangelists were assigned these symbols from the initial passages of their Gospel accounts. Matthew is given the symbol of a man because his opening passages recount the genealogy and birth of Jesus. Mark is given the figure of a lion because he began his account with the “voice crying in the desert,” and the power of his words were thought to be like that of a roaring lion.
Luke is given the figure of a calf because his account begins with Zachery standing within the Temple preparing for sacrifice. Some have argued that the symbol of an ox (rather than a calf) represents Luke because of the manger scene in Chapter 2 of his Gospel. This is unlikely since an ox is not specifically mentioned in Luke’s account of the birth of Christ.
Finally, John is given the symbol of an eagle because his Gospel begins with the pre-existence of the word of God (symbolized by the soaring eagle). Some have also added that the eagle is used to represent John because his Gospel account is more of a theological reflection “soaring” to new heights of Christian understanding.
The four symbols of the evangelists are also used occasionally to describe four stages in the life of Christ. The human form of Matthew indicates the incarnation or birth of Christ. The lion of Mark represents the Resurrection (used especially in medieval times when the lion was said to “roar” its cubs to life). The calf denotes Christ’s sacrificial death upon the cross, and the eagle of John depicts Christ’s ascension and glorification.
The symbols of the evangelists are just one example of how the Gospels have provided inspiration for artistic expression and literature. This includes painting, sculpture, music, poetry and drama. The Gospels are the foundation of our salvation in Christ. We proclaim that salvation in many ways. We celebrate it by means of the multiple forms of human expression.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.