The Four Evangelists: The Iconography
THE FOUR WINGED CREATURES WITH THE REGNANT CHRIST

Since at least the 4th century some images of the glorified or regnant Christ have him accompanied by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Duchet-Suchaux refers to one such image in the catacombs of Peter and Marcellinus (4th century) that presents them as four human figures.1 But in the early centuries they are almost always represented by a man or child, a lion, a calf or ox, and an eagle – all of them winged. This tradition reflects Revelation 4:2, 6-8:
Immediately I was in the spirit: and behold there was a throne set in heaven, and upon the throne one sitting.… And in the sight of the throne was, as it were, a sea of glass like to crystal; and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four living creatures, full of eyes before and behind. And the first living creature was like a lion: and the second living creature like a calf: and the third living creature, having the face, as it were, of a man: and the fourth living creature was like an eagle flying.
The text from Revelation in turn reflects Ezekiel 1:5,10:
And in the midst thereof the likeness of four living creatures: and this was their appearance: there was the likeness of a man in them.… And as for the likeness of their faces: there was the face of a man, and the face of a lion on the right side of all the four: and the face of an ox, on the left side of all the four: and the face of an eagle over all the four.
For Christian commentators, these texts have always been taken as referring to the evangelists. Thus St. Jerome, in the preface to his commentary on Matthew:
The first face of a man signifies Matthew, who began his narrative as though about a man: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The second [face signifies] Mark in whom the voice of a lion roaring in the wilderness is heard: “A voice of one shouting in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The third [is the face] of the calf which prefigures that the evangelist Luke began with Zachariah the priest. The fourth [face signifies] John the evangelist who, having taken up eagle’s wings and hastening toward higher matters, discusses the Word of God.2
The earliest mosaics visualize this interpretation by having the four symbolic creatures, always winged, flank a cross symbolic of Christ. This is the case in the apse mosaic at Santa Pudentiana (4th century) and in the dome of the mausoleum of Galla Placidia (5th). The cross is seated on a throne in a mosaic at Santa Maria Maggiore (5th century: see photo above), clearly functioning as a representative of Christ himself, not the historical cross on which he died. In this 10th or 11th century apse the symbols line the bottom margin of an image of Christ in Majesty.

Later the crosses are gradually supplanted by human figures. In the apsidal arch at Sant'Apollinare in Clase (6th century), the four winged creatures flank a tondo with a figured Christ. In a Romanesque cupola in Taufers, Italy, they surround a Deësis. In Saraceni's painting Paradise (late 16th), they recline at the feet of the Father and Son.

The evangelists acquire figured representations, too. At Taufers the four winged creatures accompany figures of the men they symbolize. This doubled representation will be very common in the rest of the middle ages, for example in two 13th-century tympana at León and Burgos, Spain.

THE EVANGELISTS GROUPED IN OTHER CONTEXTS

Although images of Christ in glory are the most likely place to find grouped representations of the evangelists, they can turn up almost anywhere – on a processional cross (example), on an enameled chasse, flanking the entryway to a church (example), or accompanying a figure other than Christ (example). In the 15th century Tilman Riemenschneider did four separate limewood sculptures of the evangelists in various poses.

In the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a mosaic of a deacon martyr has the famous gridiron in the center flanked by the saint on the right and a bookcase on the left with four books labeled with the evangelists' Latin names.

SOLO PORTRAITS

Solo portraits of the evangelists will often show them with their corresponding winged creatures (example).

Prepared in 2013 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-28, 2016-10-20.

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The Apsidal Arch at Santa Maria Maggiore

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A Gothic nave crucifix with the winged symbols at the four ends.

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NOTES

1 Duchet-Suchaux 140.

2 Scheck 55. On the same page (n. 37) Scheck notes that Irenaeus of Lyon (2nd century), and Augustine (4th-5th) made similar statements but distributed the identifications differently.