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.
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?
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).
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).
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….”
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).
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).
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).
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.
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, email@example.com, 7/21/14