Sacred Symbols: The Four Evangelists (Tetramorph)

The sidewalks of New York are probably not the first place most of us would look for an ancient symbol that dates to the eighth century BCE. But there it is, overlooking the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street in mid-town Manhattan. The faces of a man, lion, bull, and eagle look out from St. Thomas Episcopal Church on a city that epitomizes modernity (photos 1-2). You can also find the four faces in uptown Manhattan at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. They flank Christ the King as he sits imperiously on a rainbow (photo 3). In fact, the four figures who make up what some call the tetramorph (Greek for “four forms or shapes”) are fairly common in North America. You’ll see them in the art of several denominations including Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and more. In today’s post, we’ll visit two cathedrals in Europe and several churches in the U.S. on a quest for the tetramorph.

1. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, NYC

1. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, NYC

2. Rose Window with Winged Man, Lion, Eagle and Bull; St. Thomas, NYC

2. Rose Window with Tetramorph (Man, Lion, Eagle and Bull in the corners); St. Thomas Episcopal, NYC (Click to enlarge)

3. Christ in Majesty with the Four Figures of the Tetramorph, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

3. Christ in Majesty with the Four Figures of the Tetramorph, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC (click to enlarge)

The winged figures of the tetramorph are prominent in many Christian churches because, writes Emile Male in The Gothic Image, “from the earliest Christian times,” they were the “accepted symbols of the four evangelists.”  How did this curious connection between four creatures and the gospel writers develop?

The Eagle, Symbol for  John's Gospel, Cathedral of the Epiphany, Sioux City, IA

4. The Eagle, Symbol for John’s Gospel, Cathedral of the Epiphany, Sioux City, IA

Biblical Sources  Two Bible passages describe the tetramorph. The first is found in the prophet Ezekiel’s description of an apocalyptic vision he had beside the river Chebar during the Israelites’ Babylonian captivity around 600 BCE. Ezekiel wrote, “As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man in front…a lion on the right side…an ox on the left side…and an eagle at the back. And their wings spread out above; each creature had two wings….”  (Ezk. 1:10-11). Some scholars believe that Ezekiel drew his imagery from figures in the Babylonian zodiac. [See the article at http://mesocosm.net/2011/12/22/the-tetramorph-the-sumerian-origins-of-a-christian-symbol/]. Thirteenth century glass at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris depicts Ezekiel’s vision (photo 5).

5. Ezekiel and the Four Creatures; Ste. Chapelle, Paris, France

5. Ezekiel and the Tetramorph; Ste-Chapelle, Paris

Approximately 700 years later, St. John of Patmos described a vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation where four creatures, bearing a striking resemblance to Ezekiel’s man, lion, ox, and eagle, surround the throne of God. John wrote, “And round the throne are four living creatures full of eyes in the front and behind; the first living creature like a lion, the second like an ox, the third with the face of a man, and the fourth like a flying eagle.” Each creature has six wings and sings “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:6-8).  John’s vision inspired thirteenth century artists at Chartres Cathedral to craft a rose window where the tetramorph’s four figures, along with eight angels holding censers, encircle the majestic Christ. The four creatures also appear around Christ at the center of the Washington National Cathedral’s south rose, installed in 1962 (photo #6-9).

South Rose Window Detail, Chartres Cathedral, France

6. South Rose Window Detail, Chartres Cathedral, France. The four creatures appear in the smaller circles at 2, 4, 8, and 10 o’clock (click to enlarge)

5. Eagle, emblem of St. John, and angel; South Rose, Chartres Cathedral

7. Symbolic Eagle for St. John and angel with censer; South Rose Window, Chartres

6. Winged Man (top) and Angel with Censer, Chartres Cathedral, France

8. Winged Man (top) for St. Matthew and angel with censer, South Rose Window, Chartres

7. South Rose (postcard), Washington National Cathedral, DC (click to enlarge)

9. South Rose Window (postcard), four creatures at the Throne of God, Washington National Cathedral, DC (click to enlarge)

Tetramorph in Art  It’s fairly certain that Christian artists were drawing pictures of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by the early fourth century, C.E. It is not clear, however, when they began to portray the evangelists with their accompanying symbols from John’s vision. It probably began after St. Jerome (perhaps best known for translating the Bible into Latin) wrote a commentary on Matthew’s gospel around 400 C.E. in which he explained that, “the first face of a man signifies Matthew, who began his narrative as though about a man….”

Matthew & Mark; St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

10. Symbols for Matthew & Mark; St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

10. Symbols for Luke & John; St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

11. Symbols for Luke & John; St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

Then around 800, a German monk named Rabanus Maurus (later the archbishop of Mainz) wrote a commentary on Ezekiel in which he explained how the four creatures have three meanings that involve the identity of the evangelists, the life of Christ, and the Christian way of life.  Others who have written about Christian iconography, including George Ferguson in Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, say that Matthew’s sign is a winged man because his gospel emphasizes Christ’s human ancestry. The winged lion connotes Mark because he presumably stressed Christ’s royal dignity. The winged ox—a sacrificial animal—represents Luke because he emphasized Christ’s priesthood. Finally, the eagle symbolizes John because, says Emil Male, that gospel “transports men to the very heart of divinity,” just as the eagle soars above the clouds and looks straight into the sun. The creatures appear, with the evangelists’ names on scrolls, in 19th century stained glass at St. Francis Xavier Basilica in Dyersville, Iowa (photos 12-14).

Lion, symbol for St. Mark; St. Francis Xavier Basilica, Dyersville, IA

12. Symbolic Lion for St. Mark; St. Francis Xavier Basilica, Dyersville, IA

Ox, symbol for St. Luke, St. Francis Xavier Basilica, Dyersville, IA

13. Symbolic Ox for St. Luke, St. Francis Xavier Basilica, Dyersville, IA

Eagle, Symbol for St. John the Evangelist; St. Francis Xavier Basilica, Dyersville, IA

14. Symbolic Eagle for St. John the Evangelist; St. Francis Xavier Basilica, Dyersville, IA

Tetramorph in the Middle Ages  Not long after Rabanus Maurus wrote in the ninth century about the triple meaning of the tetramorph, sculptors of the subsequent Romanesque and Gothic periods chiseled the images of the winged man, lion, ox, and eagle above the portals of many cathedrals and abbey churches in Europe. One of the most famous examples, dating to the 1100’s, appears above Chartres Cathedral’s Royal Portal (photo 15).

Christ in Majesty with Tetramorph, Chartres Cathedral, France

15. Christ in Majesty with Tetramorph, Royal Portal, Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

Along with representations of the four creatures in rose windows and above doorways, Gothic architects and artists found other ways to present the tetramorph. At the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula in Brussels, built around 1400, sculptors carved the four creatures into the circular “bosses” in the ribbed vaulting of the ceiling. You have to crane your neck to see them high above the nave floor (photos 16-19). They also appeared in illuminated manuscripts (photo 20) and decorative plaques on the covers of gospels and devotional books during the Gothic period (photo 21).

15. Saints Michael & Gudula Cathedral, Brussels, Belgium

16. Saints Michael & Gudula Cathedral, Brussels, Belgium

16. Ribbed Vaulting, Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral

17. Ribbed Vaulting in Nave, Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral

Winged Lion Boss, Symbol of St. Mark, Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral

18. Symbolic Winged Lion, Vaulting Boss in Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral, Brussels

Winged Bull, Symbol of St.  Luke, Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral

19. Symbolic Winged Ox Boss, Vaulting Boss in Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral, Brussels

Tetramorph in St. Louis Bible, circa 1230; Reproduction at St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans, of Original in Toledo, Spain

20. Tetramorph in St. Louis Bible; reproduction at St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans; original at Cathedral of Toledo, Spain (ca. 1230)

19. Christ in Majesty Plaque (French champleve enamel) , ca. 1200, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

21. Christ in Majesty with Tetramorph Plaque, French champleve enamel , ca. 1200, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (click to enlarge)

Tetramorph Today In the United States, the winged man, lion, ox and eagle have now made their way onto baptismal fonts, pulpits, and altar railings (photos 22-25).  As noted above, they appear in the churches of various denominations, including the stained glass windows of several Wisconsin Synod Lutheran churches in the Upper Midwest. To view a large collection of their photos, see http://www.welsstainedglass.org/Symbols/GospelWritersPage.htm.

Baptismal Font Cover, St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, DC

22. Baptismal Font Cover with Four Figures of the Tetramorph, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, DC

Ox or Bull, Symbol of St. Luke on Baptismal Font Cover; St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, DC

23. Symbolic Winged Ox or Bull for St. Luke, Baptismal Font Cover; St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, DC

St. John holding an Eagle, Pulpit Sculpture, Washington National Cathedral, DC

24. St. John holding an Eagle, Pulpit Sculpture, Washington National Cathedral, DC

23. St. Luke holding book with bull on cover; Lectern sculpture; Washington, National Cathedral

25. St. Luke holding book with a bull on the cover; Lectern Sculpture; Washington, National Cathedral (click to enlarge)

The winged man, lion, ox, and eagle have endured as sacred symbols for thousands of years, taking on new meanings as the times and people changed. You never know where they’ll show up next, and that’s the “gospel truth!”

Mike Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 7/21/14

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Sacred Symbols: The Mandorla

Today’s post differs from the others that have come before in that I’m writing a reflection on a specific symbol called the mandorla (for which I’ve named this blog). What is a mandorla? First of all, it is not a mandala, nor is the distinction between the two a small matter of pronunciation or semantics as in, “You say mandorla…I say mandala!”  There really is a big difference!

A mandala, with which many people are familiar, is a symbol that takes its name from the Sanskrit word for circle. Mandorla, in contrast, is an Italian word that means “almond.” The Dictionary of Art states that it is an “almond-shaped light (or aura) enclosing the whole of a sacred figure.”  One of the most striking mandorlas in medieval stained glass appears atop the Life of Christ lancet at Chartres Cathedral in France (photos #1 & 2).

1. Mary & Christ Child in Mandorla, Chartres Cathedral, France

1. A Mandorla with Mary & Christ Child, Life of Christ Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Chenrezig Sand Mandala for the Dalai Lama's Visit to the House of Commons, UK, 2008 (photo from Wikipedia Commons)

2. A Mandala: Chenrezig Sand Mandala made for the Dalai Lama’s Visit to the House of Commons, UK (photo from Wikipedia Commons, 2008)

The mandorla is indeed a shape that many artists have used to enclose images of Christ, Mary, and sometimes the saints. It is not, however, exclusive to Christianity or the west. Artists in China and Japan have used mandorlas to embrace the Buddha in paintings and statuettes. Yet, to simply describe the mandorla as a shape somehow misses the point. It is an ancient symbol formed by two identical intersecting circles that holds multiple meanings, much like a word with a double meaning (photo #3). We’ll ponder the mandorla’s various meanings as we see how it shows up in cathedrals, churches, and museums on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ll end the post with an anecdote about how this blog got its name.

3. Mandorla in Purple, by artist Elsah Cort

3. Mandorla in Purple, by artist Elsah Cort

Origins The Encyclopedia Brittanica says that the mandorla’s origins are uncertain but notes that fifth-century Christians were using it in mosaics in Rome. Other sources indicate that the symbol pre-dates Christianity in Britain and point to Glastonbury’s Chalice Well. It comprised two large circles whose intersection formed a mandorla (http://www.chalicewell.org.uk/). The ancient Greeks used the mandorla too. During a visit to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum in 2012, I spotted a gold signet ring dating to 4 BCE that shows two lovers sitting side by side within a mandorla (photo #4). Apparently, the ring symbolizes their union in the intersection of two unseen circles that represent the genders.

As a quick aside, I’ve often wondered how an Italian word came to be associated with a symbol whose roots in our culture extend much deeper than those of the Italian language. In Latin, the symbol was called vesica piscis, or “bladder of the fish.” But who dubbed it a mandorla? I suspect that “mandorla” came into use by the 15th century as early Renaissance painters in Italy extended the old artistic tradition of enclosing sacred figures in the shape of an almond. If you can point me to a definitive answer, please use the blog’s comment function or email to reach me.

4. Postcard of Siegelring mit Liebespaar (Signet ring with lovers), 4 BCE, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

4. Siegelring mit Liebespaar (Signet ring with lovers) in Mandorla, 4 BCE, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

My first mandorla   I think I first noticed a mandorla during a visit to the Washington National Cathedral in the late 1980’s. There, behind the high altar, in a limestone screen called a reredos is a sculpted figure of Christ in Majesty framed by an almond shape (photos #5 & 6). Intrigued, I went to a library and learned that artists used the mandorla to convey the Christian belief that Christ is both god and man. One circle represents Christ’s divine nature and the other his human nature.  He occupies the mystical space created where the two circles intersect.

Christ in Majesty in Mandorla, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

5. Altar & Reredos, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Christ in Mandorla, Washington, National Cathedral, Washington, DC

6. Christ in Majesty Mandorla, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Since then, I’ve kept my eye out for mandorlas and have found them in the Gothic cathedrals of France and England (photos #7 & 8), and in churches throughout the United States (photos #9 & 10).

Transfiguration Panel with Christ in Mandorla, Chartres Cathedral, France

7. Transfiguration Panel with Christ in Mandorla, Chartres Cathedral, France

Christ in Mandorla, West Facade Gable, Salisbury Cathedral, England

8. Christ in Mandorla Sculpture, West Facade, Salisbury Cathedral, England

St. John's Vision of the Apocalyptic Christ, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

9 St. John’s Vision of the Apocalyptic Christ (in a mandorla), Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

Holy Family in Mandorla above South Portal, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

10. Holy Family in Mandorla above Southwest Portal, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

Mandorla Connections   It surprised me to learn that mandorlas are as prevalent as they are. But it surprised me even more to see how closely some mandorlas in the U.S. resemble those in Europe’s cathedrals. Compare the mandorlas in the tympanum sculptures above the main doorways at Chartres Cathedral in France (photo #11) and Princeton University Chapel in New Jersey (photo #12, click to enlarge). Both scenes contain figures of Christ in Majesty (based on a vision in the Book of Revelation) surrounded by the traditional emblems of the four gospel writers.  The sculpture at Chartres dates to the 12th century and Princeton’s to the 1920’s (http://www.princeton.edu/religiouslife/chapel/history/).  At first glance, the figures of Christ, accompanying mandorlas, and gospel symbols look alike. But on close inspection, you’ll see that Princeton’s mandorla contains the small faces of 24 crowned men, a reference most likely to the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse who St. John the Divine (not to be confused with the gospel writer) describes in the Book of Revelation. At Chartres, the 24 Elders appear in the series of arches that frame the composition.

Christ in Majesty, Royal Portal Tympanum, Chartres Cathedral, France

11. Christ in Majesty, Royal Portal Tympanum, Chartres Cathedral, France

Christ in Majesty, Princeton Chapel, Princeton, NJ

12. Christ in Majesty, Princeton University Chapel, Princeton, NJ

A Mind for Mandorlas   During the Middle Ages, mandorlas appeared in religious objects such as reliquaries (photo #13), book covers (photo #14), and devotional pieces. The extensive medieval collection at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore contains one of the most unique mandorlas—and interesting devotional ivories—that I have seen. The Vierge Ouvrante (“Opening Virgin” in French) was carved somewhere in the Champagne region of France between 1180 and 1220, about the same time that Chartres Cathedral and its famous windows were under construction.  The Vierge Ouvrante, when closed, takes the form of a seated Virgin Mary holding the Christ child on her lap (photo #15), and when open, reveals scenes of Christ’s Passion (photo #16). But look more closely. You’ll see that the artist made the point that Mary kept her mind on Christ by embedding a mandorla with a miniature image of Christ the Teacher in Mary’s head (photo 17)!

Reliquary in Shape of Mandorla, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

13.  Almond-shaped Reliquary, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Christ in Mandorla Ivory, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

14. Trinity in Mandorla, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Photo of the Vierge Ouvrante closed. Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

15. Photo of the Vierge Ouvrante closed. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Vierge Ouvrante, Open, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

16. Vierge Ouvrante, Open, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Mandorla in Mary's Head, Vierge Ouvrante, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

17. Mandorla in Mary’s Head, Vierge Ouvrante, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

To wrap up this post, I’d like to share the story of how my blog, “Mandorlas in Our Midst,” got its name. Four years ago, when I knew my job was about to end, I read a book about life transitions that asked, “What’s waiting in the wings?” One of my answers was, “I’d like to give talks about the symbolic connections between cathedrals in Europe and churches in the North America.”  With that thought in mind, and before I made any plans to give a talk, I visited the Washington National Cathedral to take a photo of “my first mandorla” (photo #6, above). The mandorla is a dynamic symbol that one can use to represent the link between many familiar dichotomies: divinity & humanity, male & female, spirit & matter, heaven & earth, conscious & unconscious, right brain & left brain, and more. I sensed that I would eventually need a mandorla for my power point presentation.

I returned home and over the weekend a curious thing happened. On Sunday, our pastor reported that she had just returned from a workshop in Chicago where she learned about a symbol called a mandorla.  She used her hands to form two intersecting circles in the air and explained, “It’s like a Venn diagram from high school geometry!” I was surprised, and the coincidence—she had never spoken about sacred symbols before—moved me. After the service, we talked and within minutes scheduled my first presentation. I called it “Mandorlas in Our Midst” with a focus on how mandorlas and other sacred symbols cut across denominational lines (photos #18-21) and connect people of different religious traditions. Mandorlas appear in churches throughout the United States and, I believe, remind us of a common thread that extends back to a time, eons ago, when humans first contemplated the mystery of what it means to have a body and soul and be both human and divine.

Good Samaritan Window, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

18. Good Samaritan Window with Subtle Mandorla Outline, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

19. St. Paul on his Missionary Voyage, St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC

19. St. Paul on his Missionary Voyage, St. Paul Window at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC

20. Bible in Mandorla, United Church of Christ, Iowa City, IA

20. Bible in Mandorla, United Church of Christ, Iowa City, IA

21. Icon from Anastasis (Resurrection) Fresco, Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, Istanbul, Turkey

21. Modern Icon based on ca. 14th Century Anastasis (Resurrection) Fresco, Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, Istanbul, Turkey

Mike Klug, mikejklug@aol.com., July 2, 2014