Crowded, isn’t it? I don’t suppose the four evangelists ever met under one roof, but if that marvelous event ever occurred, it’s highly unlikely that they would have assembled like they did in this painting, by Rubens. An extra guy in the group is fine, even if he is an angel. But an ox? A lion? An eagle?

Even more remarkable, such menagerie images are a mainstay of Western religious art.

Let me say what others might be thinking. Who got to clean up afterwards?

There is, of course, a story here. No later than the second century, Christian thinkers decided that there must be four gospels and four evangelists, no more, no less. Each, also was given a symbol, recalling the vision of the four beasts in Ezekiel 1. “Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.”


This made some sense. Perhaps Matthew’s was a particularly human portrait of Jesus, while John, plausibly, did soar like an eagle. And Luke’s ox (or bull), or Mark’s Lion …. Well, maybe the model doesn’t work perfectly.

Over time,  artists had a problem. They wanted to depict the four evangelists, and make them recognizable by their symbolic beasts. Typically, the four might be grouped, for instance surrounding a pulpit.

The resulting pictures could look a little startling. Yes, by all means, show John with his eagle.  But if you are depicting him writing at a desk, the eagle looks a bit like a wildly inappropriate pet.

The other animals look just as startling. And when the four were depicted together, the results looked bizarre indeed.

Such images teach us a lot about how religious iconography works and how, sometimes, it could pass over that thin line that separates awe-inspiring from, well, funny.

Let me just end with a lovely image of the four, this time without their beasts. This is by Jacob Jordaens.



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  • bdlaacmm

    “Well, maybe the model doesn’t work perfectly.”
    But it does, it does…
    Matthew opens with the human genealogy of the Christ: thus the Man.
    Mark opens with the roaring out of John the Baptist in the wilderness: therefore the Lion.
    Luke opens in the Temple: so the (sacrificial) Ox follows naturally.
    And John soars above all into the Heavens: and we have the Eagle!
    So the model does indeed work perfectly, as a depiction of how each Evangelist opens his Gospel.

  • Factory_Hag

    See how easy that was!

  • philipjenkins

    True. Of course, I could easily come up with four other random beasts that would fit in just as well…

  • banderlogtorpedo

    get to it

  • Thomas Hart, OSB

    OK, but Irenaeus did not mix and match them as laid out here, and he was
    the one, so far as I know (ca. AD 180), to be the first to record and
    make the connection with Rev 4:7 and the Church’s consensus that we want
    these four, not one (Marcion), nor a Gospel Harmony (Tatian), but “the Gospel, fourfold in form, but held together by one Spirit.” This is how Irenaeus does the line-up: Lion = John; Ox (or Calf) = Luke; Man = Matthew, and the Eagle = Mark!
    Later patristic authors would mix and match them according to their own
    allegorical lenses. Eventually, by the time of Gregory I believe (ca. AD
    580), we have them laid out as they would be here in subsequent
    Christian art and symbolism. Ironic, isn’t it? Irenaeus gives the
    template by which the New Testament reaches its canonical form, in
    regard to these four Gospels at least, but others don’t care for his
    arrangement. What marvelous conversations must still occur among the
    Saints as to how such things evolved.

  • philipjenkins

    and thank you for the clear exposition!