The Symbolism of the Evangelists

the murals

First of all I would like to express my gratitude to the Rev. Rob, vestry, and to the whole of the St. Mark’s community for allowing me to do this project. It’s been a dream of mine for quite a while to do a big project like this.

When I first came here two and a half years ago, I saw the bare panels and immediately thought to myself, “Oh, they need painting!” I suggested to Rev. Rob, whom I knew already from teaching at Queen’s, to paint all six of them, but he suggested only these four, leaving the centre panels bare, and I immediately thought that it must be the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

But why did I paint these symbols? Of course, the man, the lion, the ox, and the eagle are the traditional symbols of the evangelists which have appeared in Christian art since the 5th century, and in Christian writing since the 2nd century. They are based in two scriptural texts – a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, and one from the Book of Revelation.

The passage in Ezekiel describes the prophet’s vision of the four “living creatures” drawing a sort of “throne-chariot” of God out of a fiery cloud. In that vision, each of the living creatures has four wings and four faces – the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. This image in Greek is referred to as the “tetramorph”, the creature with “four forms” or “four shapes”.

In the Book of Revelation, the four “living creatures” are now seen surrounding the throne of God in heaven. In that vision, they have six wings each, as do the seraphim who surround the throne, and they are covered in eyes front and back, but they have only one face each – one of a man, one a lion, one an ox, and one an eagle. So here, the tetramorph has been divided, but whenever the four appear together, they are still referred to collectively as the tetramorph. In Christian iconography, the image of Christ Pantocrator, Christ Ruler of the World, especially when shown enthroned, is often depicted with the divided tetramorph surrounding him.

But where do these symbols come from? Why did the prophets envision these very odd “living creatures” to begin with? One scholarly explanation that has been given is that the prophet Ezekiel lived in the 6th century among those who had been exiled during the Babylonian Exile. At that time, the mythology of the surrounding Babylonian and Assyrian cultures, with which he would have become familiar, was rife with images of wild creatures associated with various powers of nature – the ox with the earth, the roaring lion with fire, the eagle with the air and the sun (it was believed that eagles, for example, could look directly into the sun without blinking). To that extent, the vision of Ezekiel, far from denying the existence of such nature deities, would rather have suggested that any nature deities there were would be themselves in the service of the mighty God of Israel, pulling his throne-chariot.

It was not until the late 2nd century, however, that the four living creatures were associated with the four evangelists of the gospels. Irenaeus was the first to make this connection, although he associated the lion with John and the eagle with Mark. In fact, since Irenaeus’ time, there have been numerous interpretations of the tetramorph which link the creatures up in all different combinations with the evangelists. The combination which in time developed into the most widely accepted and today standard system was first proposed in the 4th century by Victorinus, and later supported by the highly influential figure Jerome. After that, towering figures such as Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas supported this same standard combination. Although Augustine curiously interchanged the symbols for Mark and Matthew, and there have even been alternate combinations proposed, though always with these four symbols, right into the mid-20th century.

In any case, what you see here is the most widely-accepted combination in the tradition. Christian art beginning in the 5th century started to depict the evangelists, at first merely accompanied by each their own associated living creature (with the creature shown instructing and divinely inspiring the evangelist in his activity of writing his gospel), and then later as merged with, wholly symbolized by his associated creature. But what do these symbols mean? What has the traditional interpretation of the tetramorph-evangelist connection been?

In fact, over the centuries, even those who accepted this standard combination of the connection have given a wide variety of explanations for it. The most enduring ones have related to six basic considerations: 1) how each gospel begins; 2) Christ’s main quality as emphasized in each gospel; 3) the key qualities of the creature associated with each gospel; 4)the natural element associated with each creature; 5) the virtues necessary for salvation which are displayed by Christ in each gospel; and 6) the specific Christian doctrine as suggested in each gospel by all these other factors.

panels talk

Now obviously I couldn’t incorporate all of this symbolism into the murals when I painted them. But I did get some reference to the natural elements into them, in the attempt to evoke some of the natural scenery of the Newfoundland landscape (coast, mountainous west coast, rolling fields, the sun). Reverend Rob said, for example, that the eagle reminds him of the Torngat Mountains. I was telling this to Cheryl Faseruk, and she said that if I really wanted it to be about Newfoundland, then I should have portrayed the eagle as a seagull, the ox as a moose, the lion as a big Newfoundland dog, and the man as a mummer. Now I wouldn’t so much necessarily think of mummering as the ideal of human perfection. But when you think about it, mummers are disguised, and people must guess their true identities. Well, in the same sort of way, our true identities as perfect, loving, welcoming, creative, immortal children of God lie still deep within us, and these outer identities are only symbols and must, as well as they can, be transformed, and help us make our way through to our true perfection within.

So I finish again with gratitude to St. Mark’s for being a church and a family which so dearly values the creative contributions made by its members, and which supports all of us in, little by little, discovering and revealing to one another always a little bit more of our own true, creative identities. May we always carve out, with God’s help, that welcoming space within our hearts to make room for what others have to offer of themselves to us. For sometimes the greatest gift that you can give to another person is an empty space within yourself to receive that which the other has to give of him- or herself to you.

Amen.

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