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In the frontispiece to the Bible, the four evangelist a presented as: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. They represent the four authors of the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Very frequently, when the four Evangelists are pictured in manuscripts of the Gospels, each one is accompanied by his symbolic representative – A man (or angel) accompanies Matthew, a lion accompanies Mark; an ox accompanies Luke, and an eagle accompanies John.
These particular symbols correspond to the faces of the cherubim in visions found in the Biblical books of Ezekiel and Revelation:
In Ezekiel 1:10, as the prophet describes a vision of the throne-chariot of God, revealed as the sovereign Ruler of all nations, he states that each of the four living creatures moving the throne (some interpreters might say that the creatures themselves are the throne) had four faces: “Each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle.”
In Revelation 4:7, as John describes a vision of God’s heavenly throne, he states that four living creatures were there: “The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle.” These seem to be the same angelic beings described by Ezekiel, perceived by John in a form that is different but nevertheless recognizable. Ezekiel called them cherubim; John referred to them as living creatures, or zōē, the Greek word from which we get the word “zoo.”
In the year 400 Augustine agreed that the four cherubim establish a pattern of divine expression that is maintained in the divine inspiration of the four Gospels, but he did not agree completely with Irenaeus about which Gospel went with which image. In The Harmony of the Gospels, Book One, 6:9, Augustine wrote as follows:
“It appears to me that among the various parties who have interpreted the living creatures in Revelation as a symbolic pattern of the four Evangelists, those who have taken the lion to point to Matthew, the man to Mark, the calf to Luke, and the eagle to John, have made a more reasonable application of the figures than those who have assigned the man to Matthew, the eagle to Mark, and the lion to John. For the second set of identifications has been chosen in accordance with just the beginnings of the books, rather than according to the complete design of each Gospel in full view, which is what should be the chief consideration.”
“For surely it is much more appropriate that the writer who has brought the kingly character of Christ to our attention should be understood to be represented by the lion. Accordingly, we find the lion mentioned in a reference to the royal tribe itself, in that passage of Revelation” 5:5 where it is said, ‘The lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed.’ And in Matthew’s account, the wise men are recorded to have come from the east, searching for the King, in order worship Him whose birth was revealed to them by the star. There, too, Herod, who was also a king, is stated to have been afraid of the royal Child, and it is reported that he killed so many little children in order to ensure that the one might be slain.
No one questions that Luke is signified by the calf, which refers to the pre-eminent sacrifice made by the priest. For in that Gospel, the narration begins with Zacharias the priest. It also mentions the relationship between Mary and Elisabeth, and it records the performance of the proper ceremonies [i.e., circumcision] being carried out by the earthly priesthood in the case of the infant Christ. With careful examination, we would notice a variety of other points in this Gospel which made it apparent that Luke’s purpose was to deal with the role of the priest.
Accordingly, it follows that Mark is plainly indicated by the man among the four living creatures. For he has undertaken neither to describe the royal lineage, nor to go into detail about the priesthood, either concerning priestly status or consecration; he addresses the things which the man Christ did.
“Those three living creatures – lion, man, and calf – have their course upon this earth. Likewise, those three Evangelists chiefly describe the things which Christ did in the flesh, and report the precepts which He delivered to men who bear the burden of the flesh, in order to instruct them in the rightful exercise of this mortal life. John, on the other hand, soars like an eagle above the clouds of human weakness, and gazes upon the light of permanent truth with those keenest and steadiest eyes of the heart.”
Epiphanius of Salamis (on the island of Cyprus), who lived from about 315 to about 405, and who took the office of bishop in 367, found a reason to comment on the Gospel-symbols in the 35th chapter of his Treatise on Weights and Measures. Epiphanius stated the following:
“There are four rivers out of Eden, four quarters of the world, four seasons of the year, four watches in the night … and four spiritual creatures which were composed of four faces, signifying the coming of the Messiah. One had the face of a man, because Christ was born a man in Bethlehem, as Matthew teaches. One had the face of a lion, as Mark proclaims him coming up from the Jordan, a lion king, as also somewhere it is written, ‘The Lord has come up as a lion from the Jordan.” [Epiphanius is recollecting Jeremiah 49:19 and 50:44, but these passages refer to personifications of Edom and Babylon, not to the Lord.]
“One had the face of an ox, as Luke proclaims (and not him only, but also the other Evangelists) about He who, at the appointed time of the ninth hour, like an ox on behalf of the world, was offered up on the cross. One had the face of an eagle, as John proclaims the Word who came from heaven and was made flesh and flew to heaven like an eagle after the resurrection with the Godhead.”
The influential translator-scholar Jerome adopted the same identifications that Epiphanius proposed. In the preface to his Commentary on Matthew, Jerome wrote as follows:
The book of Ezekiel demonstrates that these four Gospels had been predicted much earlier. Its first vision has the following description: ‘And in the midst there was a likeness of four animals. Their countenances were the face of a man and the face of a lion and the face of a calf and the face of an eagle.’ The first face of a man represents 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, 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, of the calf, which prefigures that the evangelist Luke began with Zacharias the priest. The fourth, John the evangelist, who, having taken up eagle’s wings and hastening toward higher matters, discusses the Word of God. [This rendering was based on pages 55-56 of Thomas P. Scheck’s Saint Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Copyright © 2008 The Catholic University of America Press.]
Jerome’s explanation – Matthew=man, Mark=lion, Luke=ox, John=eagle – was applied by most artists from the 400s onward, whether they were illustrating manuscripts or decorating churches. This is why these symbols often accompany the Evangelists in miniatures (framed illustrations) in medieval Gospels-manuscripts.
(The term “miniature” in this context does not have anything to do with the size of the picture; the origin of the term seems to have something to do with the use of deep red ink saturated with lead, called minium, to sketch out the framework and outlines of the picture before the more detailed drawing or painting was done.)
Sometimes, all four symbolic creatures are depicted with wings. And, sometimes, all four images have human bodies, and only the faces are different, with the result that Mark’s symbol looks like a Kzin, Luke’s symbol looks like a minotaur, and John’s symbol looks a bit like the ancient Egyptian deity Horus. Occasionally, in Armenian manuscripts of the Gospels, the initial letter at the beginning of a Gospel will itself be transformed into the Gospel-symbol.
Although practically all Greek manuscripts that contain the Gospel-symbols use Jerome’s arrangement, in a few Old Latin copies, Mark is represented by the eagle, and John is represented by the lion. This may be an effect of the “Western” order of the Gospels, in which the accounts by the two apostles (Matthew and John) were placed before the accounts by the apostles’ assistants (Luke and Mark).
One possible explanation for this is that somewhere in the Old Latin tradition, the Gospels were in the order Matthew-John-Luke-Mark, accompanied accordingly by the symbols man-eagle-ox-lion, but when Vulgate copies invaded, so to speak, copyists conformed their local texts to the Vulgate standard but did not change the order of the illustrations. This has resulted in yet a fourth arrangement (consisting of Irenaeus’ identifications, but not in the “Western” order), found in the Book of Durrow (made in about 675): Matthew=man, Mark=eagle, Luke=ox, and John=lion.
Another possibility is that the arrangement found in the Book of Durrow represents the application of Irenaeus’ idea about how the Gospels correspond to the four faces of the cherubim. Before Jerome produced the Vulgate translation, Fortunatianus, bishop of Aquileia (in upper eastern Italy) from 343 to 355, expressed the same idea in his Latin commentary on the Gospels. For a long time, scholars assumed that his commentary no longer existed, but a copy was recently discovered; its contents are being prepared for publication by Lukas J. Dorfbauer.
On fol. 10v of the only surviving copy of Fortunatianus’ commentary, Fortunatianus offers an interesting casual comment: “Non inmerito, ut supra exposuimus, aquilae gerit imaginem, quia eum ad caelum volasse demonstrate,” that is, “It is not without reason that he [Mark] is holding the image of the eagle, as I explained before, because he declares that he [Jesus] flew up to heaven.” This not only shows that Fortunatianus assigned the eagle-symbol to Mark, but also seems to indicate that Fortunatianus’ text of Mark – a witness as old as Codex Sinaiticus – included 16:19. Earlier in his commentary, Fortunatianus identifies the symbols as follows: Matthew=man, John=lion, Mark=eagle, and Luke=ox.
Sometimes, when an Evangelist and his Gospel-symbols appear in a miniature, one or the other will hold a scroll; these scrolls typically contain the text of the opening lines of the Gospel, or, in the case of Luke, the first phrase of the fifth verse of chapter one (because the first four verses of Luke were considered a preface, rather than the beginning of the narrative). Sometimes they simply contain the Evangelists’ names.
Being more specific, St. Irenaeus explained the symbolism as follows:
St. Matthew is represented by a divine man because the Gospel highlights Jesus’ entry into this world, first by presenting His family lineage — “A family record of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1) — and His incarnation and birth: “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about” (Mt 1:18). “This then,” according to St. Irenaeus, “is the Gospel of His humanity; for which reason it is, too, that the character of a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel.”
St. Mark, represented by the winged lion, references the Prophet Isaiah when he begins his gospel: “Here begins the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In Isaiah the prophet it is written: ‘I send my messenger before you to prepare your way: a herald’s voice in the desert, crying, “Make ready the way of the Lord, clear Him a straight path.’” “The voice in the desert crying” reminds one of a lion’s roar, and the prophetical spirit descending to earth reminds one of a “winged message.” The lion also signified royalty, an appropriate symbol for the Son of God.
The winged ox represents St. Luke. Oxen were used in temple sacrifices. For instance, when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem, an ox and a fatling were sacrificed every six steps (2 Sm 6). St. Luke begins his Gospel with the announcement of the birth of St. John the Baptizer to his father, the priest Zechariah, who was offering sacrifice in the Temple (Lk 1). St. Luke also includes the parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the fatted calf is slaughtered, not only to celebrate the younger son’s return, but also to foreshadow the joy we must have in receiving reconciliation through our most merciful Saviour who as Priest offered Himself in sacrifice to forgive our sins. Therefore, the winged ox reminds us of the priestly character of our Lord and His sacrifice for our redemption.
Lastly, St. John is represented by the rising eagle. The Gospel begins with the “lofty” prologue and “rises” to pierce most deeply the mysteries of God, the relationship between the Father and the Son, and the incarnation: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God. He was present to God in the beginning. Through Him all things came into being, and apart from Him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:1-3). And “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we have seen His glory: The glory of an only Son coming from the Father filled with enduring love” (Jn 1:14). The Gospel of St. John, unlike the other Gospels, engages the reader with the most profound teachings of our Lord, such as the long discourses Jesus has with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, and the beautiful teachings on the Bread of Life and the Good Shepherd. Jesus, too, identified Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life,” and anyone who embraces Him as such will rise to everlasting life with Him.
While each of these symbols focuses on the particular theme of each Gospel, only in penetrating all four Gospels do we encounter fully our Lord.
So, the following proposals have been made regarding which angel, or angel-face, corresponds to which Evangelist:
|The “Western” order
|The “Fortunatianus” order
|The Book of Durrow (“Non-Western”) order
Matthew = man
John = lion
Luke = ox
Mark = eagle
Matthew = lion
Mark = man
Luke = calf
John = eagle
|Epiphanius and Jerome:
Matthew = man
Mark = lion
Luke = ox
John = eagle
Augustine’s identification-scheme was his own personal idea; it never became popular. Irenaeus’ proposal persisted in the “Western” tradition for a while, but examples of its artistic representation are rare. The arrangement advocated by Epiphanius and Jerome (which probably is earlier than them both) was subsequently adopted by almost everyone who artistically depicted the Gospel-symbols, in Greek manuscripts and in Latin, Ethiopic, and Armenian manuscripts.
In closing, three points may be drawn from all this. First, we see that even the most influential patristic writers of the early church disagreed among themselves regarding some of the finer points of Biblical interpretation; yet they did not castigate each other because of this. Regarding such a minor concern, there was liberty.
The false claim that the unique authority of the four canonical Gospels was only established in the fourth century can be found at high levels of academia the British Library – but it is nevertheless a fictitious claim, and Christians who financially support the educational institutions where it is promoted ought to cringe at the thought that their gifts are being used to promote a pernicious fabrication.
Second, we see that as far as the Gospels were concerned, the canon was firmly established before the end of the second century. On this major concern, there was unity. Those who try to give the impression that the apostolic Christian church ever accepted dozens of heretical works, such as the so-called Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Truth, etc., are either terribly misinformed, or else they are belligerent liars.
Third, we see the drawbacks and benefits of looking for typological lessons in the Biblical text. On the one hand, it is clear that the early interpreters who interpreted the faces of the cherubim as representative of the four Gospel-writers could, with a little imaginative exercise, find reasons to justify whatever specific identifications they asserted. On the other hand, the appeal of the basic point being conveyed is difficult to deny. God’s heavenly manifestation, as revealed to Ezekiel and John, was accompanied by four cherubim, and God’s earthly incarnation, as revealed in Christ, was portrayed in four Gospels: the Synoptic Gospels in one way or another thematically depict Christ as a human being, as a royal lion, and as a sacrificial ox. John emphasized the heavenly aspects of Christ’s ministry, looking back from a greater distance of time than the others, like a sharp-eyed eagle looking down on events from a high altitude.
And since we are called to be Christ-like, and to be messengers of the good news, may we have a fourfold aspiration: to be humble people, and to still be bold like the lion, to bear burdens like the ox, and to still fly toward the presence of God, perceiving lessons which our physical eyes cannot see, squinting in the light as we approach the Scriptures.
Saturday (Vigil): 4:40pm Rosary & Rec., 5:00pm Mass
Sunday: 7:30am, 9am & 6pm
Monday: 9:15am Mass, Ador. & Rec.
Tuesday: 6:15pm Ador., 6.30pm Rosary & Rec., 7pm Mass
Wednesday: 9:15am Mass, Ador. & Rec.
Thursday: 9:15am Mass, Ador. & Rec.
Friday: 9:15am Mass, Ador. & Rec.
First Friday: Ador. 7am-7:30pm.
Masses at 9:15am & 7:30pm with Anointing of the Sick.
Ador. – Adoration.
Rec. – Reconciliation.
1 Beaconsfield St, Revesby, NSW 2212, Australia
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Phone: (02) 9773 9065
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