Evangelist symbols

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Matthew (This and the following three pictures are from the Bamberg Apocalypse )

The four evangelists Matthew , Mark , Luke and John , who are considered to be the authors of the four biblical Gospels , have been represented in Christian iconography by four winged symbols since the 4th century . The most frequent assignment since then is: a person symbolizes Matthew, the lion Mark, the bull Luke and the eagle John.

These symbols can also be found as attributes in figurative representations of the evangelists.

Until the 13th century, the symbols were also combined into a single structure, which bears the name tetramorph , which was taken over from the Greek , meaning four-shape .


Babylonian mythology

The Evangelists with their Attributes, Codex Amiatinus (7th century)
Evangelist symbols, fresco in the refectory, Saint-André abbey (Lavaudieu)

The religious historical roots of the tetramorph are likely to be found in Babylonian mythology . There the four figures symbolize the four male planetary gods. The bull stood for the Babylonian city god Marduk , the lion for the war and underworld god Nergal , the eagle for the wind god Ninurta and man for Nabu , the god of wisdom. This is accompanied by ancient oriental notions of guardians of the corners of the world and of bearers of the heavenly vault in the first (Taurus), fourth (Leo), seventh (Scorpio man) and tenth constellation (Aquarius, near which the constellation of the eagle is located) of the ancient Babylonian zodiac.

Book of prophets Ezekiel

The symbols of the Christian history of action go back to visions from the book of the prophet Ezekiel , primarily to those in the 1st chapter:

“I saw: a storm wind came from the north, a large cloud with flickering fire, surrounded by a bright glow. From the fire it shone like shiny gold. Something like four living things appeared in the middle. And that was their shape: they looked like people. Each of the living beings had four faces and four wings. [The four also had faces and wings.]… And their faces looked like this: a human face (all four looked forward), a lion face to the right, a bull face to all four to the left and an eagle face to all four (to the rear). "

- (Ez 1.4-10 EU )

In the book of Ezekiel, the vision introduces the commissioning of the prophet to admonish the people of Israel in exile in Babylon to repent in order to enable their later return to Judea . In Ezekiel there are other temple visions that describe both a double face of two cherubim and the four-face in a different order and composition:

“Every living being had four faces. The first was a cherub face, the second a human face, the third a lion face and the fourth an eagle face. "

- (Ez 10.14 EU )

Here, instead of the bull, a cherub appears , a winged human-like being; In the temple you can see carvings that depict a circumferential gallery with several pairs of cherubim and palm fronds - as well as on the two door wings:

"Each cherub had two faces: a human face (looked) to one palm tree and a lion face to the other."

- (Ez 41.19 EU )
Evangelist symbols (8th century), Book of Kells

Revelating of the Johannes

The Revelation of John in the New Testament takes on the throne visions of the cherubim (four wings) from Ezekiel, but also those of the seraphim (six wings) from Isaiah 6,2 EU , composes them into a new vision and thus establishes the Christian tradition. The original meaning and context of the image in ancient Babylonian mythology is irrelevant for Rev 4. In the Revelation of John there do not appear human-like four faces , but four individual beings (so-called beings of the Apocalypse ), which are compared with their entire form as follows:

“And in front of the throne there was something like a sea of ​​glass, like crystal. And in the middle, around the throne, were four eyes, front and back. The first living being looked like a lion, the second a bull , the third looked like a person, the fourth looked like a flying eagle . And each of the four living beings had six wings, full of eyes on the outside and inside. "

- ( Rev 4,6-8  EU )


The tradition of the symbols of the evangelists does not follow the sequence of the Revelation of John, but corresponds to the first, oldest mention in Ez 1:10 with the sequence man - lion - bull - eagle. Noticeably, only the eagle comes last in all descriptions.

The development of symbols to mark four specific Gospels goes back to the Church Fathers . They try to explain why the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - and not the many others - are to be understood as divine revelation together with the already completed Tanakh . The Church Fathers recognized the four scriptures in the four faces of those beings who are at home in the immediate presence of God. Like them there were four of them, different but of the same nature. In detail, the relationship between gospels and symbols is interpreted as follows:

Irenaeus: oldest interpretation

In the Christian tradition, the symbols according to Rev 4.7  EU were first understood by the church father Irenaeus of Lyon († 202) in the four-faced beings from the book of Ezekiel ( Ez 1.10  EU ) as the advance notice of Christ : The four faces of the four beings showed Christ majestically as a “lion”, priestly as a “bull calf”, incarnate in “man” and giving spirit as an “eagle”. Irenaeus found this Christ typology in the Gospels of John, Luke, Matthew and Mark again, justified why there must be four Gospels, and thus made an important contribution to their canonization . Irenaeus assigned the four figures to these Gospels: the lion to John, the bull to Luke, the human being to Matthew and the eagle to Mark. However, this assignment did not prevail.

Hieronymus: decisive interpretation

Jerome (4th century), like Irenaeus, justified the number and selection of the four Gospels with reference to the biblical sources (Ez 1; Rev 4). In the introduction to his Matthew commentary, Hieronymus set “Word of God” from the Gospel of John Jn 1,1  EU equal to “Gospel”, derived from Ez 1,10  EU that four individual copies are meant, explained with the help of the four beings which gospels these are, and thus provided the decisive interpretation for the church tradition:

“The first figure, that of a person, points to Matthew, who begins to write about a person:“ Book of the descent of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham ”, the second (figure points to) Mark to whom the voice of a roaring lion can be heard in the desert: “Voice of someone who calls in the desert: Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths”; the third (figure) of a calf (indicates the one) that the Evangelist Luke has the priest Zacharias use at the beginning; the fourth (figure indicates) the evangelist John, who, because he receives the wings of an eagle and can thus hurry to higher things, discusses the word of God. "

Old church, further interpretations

Augustine offers a different assignment , including the order of Rev 4, 6–8  EU : the lion corresponds to Matthew, the bull to Luke, the person to Mark and the eagle to John. Unlike Hieronymus, he does not justify his assignment with the characteristic beginnings of the Gospels, but with the entire theology of the respective Gospel. Augustine was followed by only a few other interpreters of Revelation, including Primate (552 - approx. 570) and Beda Venerabilis († 735).
The eagle for the author of the "spiritual gospel" ( Clemens of Alexandria , around 200 AD) can also be related to the symbolic representation of the Holy Spirit , who is often also represented as a bird (but as a dove ). The symbol for Matthew is popularly understood - comparable to the revelation of the Koran - as the angel who dictated the evangelist.

The four evangelist symbols also have a part in the symbolism of the four as the number of the world and thus symbolize the universality of the Christ message.


Mosaic in the apse of Santa Pudenziana in Rome


Following the biblical texts, the human being, who should not be confused with an angel, the lion and the bull are mostly winged, which can also apply to the eagle, although it already has wings. The four beings are more seldom shown covered with eyes, as is described in Revelation.

Keller gives the first representation of the Santa Pudenziana in Rome from around the year 400 and mentions an illumination in an Echternach Gospel Book dated around the year 775 , which is in 1979 in the cathedral library , as the early representation of the four beings assembled into one figure (tetramorph) was in Trier. In the course of art history, the way in which the evangelists represented has changed, from isolated symbolic beings to a group of people ( Pieter Aertsen ) who even manage without their symbols ( Jakob Jordaens ).


Majestas Domini with the four winged beings (around 1150), Saint-Fortunat Abbey , Charlieu, tympanum of the main portal (in the north!)

The evangelist symbols can be found particularly frequently in the portal area of western medieval churches, where they adorn the tympanum in connection with the Majestas Domini and the 24 elders , or, for example , act as attributes in the portal slopes under the feet of individual representations of the evangelists . Arch fields in the portals of Saint-Fortunat in Charlieu and the cathedrals of Chartres and Angers provide fine examples . Plastic representations can also be found on a sarcophagus , on pulpits, on organ prospects and on baroque church domes . In painting, the symbols mostly appear in the apse , in Gothic on winged altars , in village churches on colored wood panels on the gallery balustrades , in goldsmithing on the book cover, in textile art on the back of the chasuble ( Gösser regalia ), in book illumination on the flyleaf liturgical manuscripts and in ivory carvings . The most prominent non-ecclesiastical site can be found on the largest oil painting in the world, Das Paradies : Jacopo Tintoretto painted the symbols next to the evangelists in the Doge's Palace in the order required for Venice (from left) Mark, Luke, Matthew and John.

to form

The symbols are seldom arranged linearly next to each other. Instead of the sequence, the grouping is chosen, which corresponds to the arrangement method of Ezekiel (in four directions).

basic forms

The symbols appear in four corners around the rosette of an external facade. If Christ is depicted sitting on a throne or surrounded by a mandorla on the facades, in the portal area or in the church interior ( apse , wall, ceiling) , then two evangelist symbols are usually located on the right and left of him, one above the other, in the order (for Example Sant 'Angelo in Formis or tympanum of the parish church of Lassouts ):

Eagle human
lion bull
Tympanum of the royal portal of Chartres Cathedral with the four evangelists

Or by swapping the eagle and human positions (for example at Chartres Cathedral ):

human Eagle
lion bull

In this case man and lion are united on one side, as in the temple vision Ez 41:19 EU .

The task performed by these orders is primarily an instructive one: in the occidental church, following Nilus of Ankyra , education is essentially conveyed through intuition in and with the building of the church.

Special forms

In addition, there are a number of special forms: At the Basel Minster , to the right of the Gnadenpforte, people and eagles are shown above the people who represent the respective evangelists, to the left of this is the row with a lion, a bull and, underneath, the associated sculptures completed. In Arles-sur-Tech , the symbols are arranged in a cross shape, with the eagle at the top, the human on the left, the lion on the right, the bull below. Among the representations in other parts of a church building stands out: the pulpit in the church of Santa Maria del Lago in Moscufo , where the symbols - which is extremely rare - are arranged without a book and without Majestas Domini .


In books ( Byzantine , Iro-Scottish , Carolingian , Ottonian and Romanesque book illuminations) there are similarly different orders and modes of representation: symbols in two over two fields, in the form of a cross and in a corner around a representation of Christ.


See also


  • Yves Cattin, Philipp Faure: The angels and their images in the Middle Ages (=  Zodiaque series: "Visages du Moyen-Age" . Volume 2 ). Schnell and Steiner, Regensburg / Zodiaque, Saint-Léger-Vauban 2000, ISBN 3-7954-1290-0 (French: Les Anges et leur image au Moyen âge . Translated by Michael Lauble).
  • Article: Evangelist II Evangelist symbols . In: Walter Kaspar et al. (Ed.): Lexicon for theology and church . Reprint of the 1993–2001 edition, 3rd edition. tape 3 : Demon to fragments dispute . Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 2006, ISBN 3-451-22012-1 , Sp. 1056 f .
  • Hiltgart L. Keller: Reclam's Lexicon of Saints and Biblical Figures. Legend and representation in the fine arts . 4th, revised and supplemented edition, Reclam, Stuttgart 1968, ISBN 3-15-010154-9 .
  • Ursula Nilgen: Article: Evangelists and Evangelist symbols . In: Wolfgang Braunfels (Ed.): Lexicon of Christian Iconography. Volume 1: General Iconography: A - Ezekiel. Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 1968, p. 696.
  • Peter Pfarl: Christian art. Motifs, painters, interpretations. Styria, Graz / Vienna / Cologne 1999, ISBN 3-222-12747-6 .
  • Horst Schwebel: Art and Christianity. Story of a conflict. Beck, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-222-12747-6 .
  • Rolf Toman (ed.): The art of the Romanesque. Architecture, sculpture, painting . Könemann, Cologne 1996, ISBN 3-89508-213-9 .

Web links

Commons : The four living beings  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Commons : The Four Evangelists  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. See winged lion ( memento of the original from October 6, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. with Darius ( Persepolis ); Glazed brick pictures at the palace of Darius in Susa : winged lion with a ram's head and grasping claws (Cattin: Kunst. Fig. 1, p. 17); winged horse ( Memento of the original dated December 14, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. with bull's feet and horn. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.niasnet.org @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.sachmet.ch
  2. Pfarl: Christian Art , S. 178th
  3. See Wilhelm Bousset: The Revelation Johannis. Göttingen 1906, p. 251 f. ( Wikisource )
  4. See Wilhelm Bousset: The Revelation Johannis. Göttingen 1906, p. 252 ( Wikisource ).
  5. Traugott Holtz: The Revelation of John, translated and explained. NTD Volume 11, Göttingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-525-51387-3 , p. 56 f.
  6. Traugott Holtz: The Revelation of John, translated and explained. NTD Volume 11, Göttingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-525-51387-3 , p. 56.
  7. Adversus haereses III 11.8 German text . Augustine also knows this interpretation, but does not agree with it (De Consensu Evangelistarum I 6 [9]).
  8. LThK, Art. Evangelist etc. Sp. 1056 f.
  9. Latin: “Prima hominis facies Matheum significat qui quasi de homine exorsus est scribere: Liber generationis Iesu Christi filii Dauid filii Abraham ; secunda Marcum in quo uox leonis in heremo rugientis auditur: Vox clamantis in deserto: Parate uiam Domini, rectas facite semitas eius ; tertia uituli quae euangelistam Lucam a Zacharia sacerdote sumpsisse initium praefigurat; quarta Iohannem euangelistam qui adsumptis pinnis aquuilae et altiora festinans de Verbo Dei disputat. “Preface to the Matthew commentary, German translation by Emmaus , Latin text source quoted and French. translated by: Émile Bonnard: Saint Jérôme. Commentaire on S. Matthieu. Tome 1 (Livres I-II). Latin texts, introduction, traduction et notes. Sources Crétiennes Volume 242, Paris 1977, pp. 64 f., ISBN 2-204-01207-6 .
  10. De Consensu Evangelistarum I 6 [9] Latin text
  11. See Wilhelm Bousset: The Revelation Johannis. Göttingen 1906, p. 66 ( Wikisource ).
  12. See Wilhelm Bousset: The Revelation Johannis. Göttingen 1906, p. 67 ( Wikisource ).
  13. Without wings in the Anglo-French Apocalypse (13th century), Toulouse, Bibliothèque Municipale, Ms. 815 fol. 10v (Cattin: Engel , fig. 37, p. 80).
  14. Eagle with six wings: suction. Apocalypse ( Memento of the original from November 14, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. von St.-Severs , 11th century (Paris, Bibl. Nat. Ms. 8878, fol. 108v – 109 (Fig. in Rolf Toman: Romanik. p. 446 f.); Merovingian sarcophagus  ( page no longer available , Search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Saint-Agilberts (7th century) in Jouarre . @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / beatus.saint-sever.fr@1@ 2Template: Dead Link / www.tourisme-jouarre.com  
  15. Rabula Gospels ( Byzantine , 6th century) with tetramorph under the mandorla (Ascension of Christ).
  16. Tetramorph on the lower body with bull, lion, human feet, eagle head and wings or as a four-faced mount with four different runs in the Freiburg Minster ( Memento of the original from August 15, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / elbanet.ethz.ch
  17. ^ The four Evangelists (1559), Suermondt Museum, Aachen.
  18. Pfarl: Christian Art. P. 179.
  19. Merovingian Sarcophagus  ( page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Saint-Agilberts (7th century) in Jouarre (St. Paul's crypt), all symbols with six wings.@1@ 2Template: Dead Link / www.tourisme-jouarre.com  
  20. Pfarl: Christian Art , S. 179th
  21. Codex Egberti , around 980 (Fig. In Toman: Romanik. P. 402).
  22. Apse Santa Pudeziana man and lion on the right, bull and eagle on the left (order according to Ez 1,10, but according to Rev 4,7 with six wings). Romanesque: Tympanum of Saint-Bénigne  ( page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. in Dijon (12th century), there together with figures of angels that cover the mandorla.@1@ 2Template: Dead Link / www.ho-net.nl  
  23. Rosette of the Basilica of St. Pietro in Tuscania (Fig. Also in: Toman: Romanik. P. 104).
  24. Different examples: The portal of Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand , where Seraphim stand to the right and left of the enthroned Christ according to Isa 6,2 EU , or, in book form, the Durham Gospel , 7th century.
  25. Apse painting around 1080 (Fig. Also in Toman: Romanik. P. 409).
  26. Georgios Fatouros:  Nilus of Ancyra. In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). Volume 6, Bautz, Herzberg 1993, ISBN 3-88309-044-1 , Sp. 577-579.
  27. ^ Schwebel: Art , p. 34.
  28. Order (counterclockwise) eagle, bull, lion, human: Plate by Patriarch Sigvald (762/776) in Cividale ( Hermann Fillitz (Hrsg.): Das Mittelalter I. Propylaen Art History Volume 5, Berlin 1969, Fig. 79b) ; Tympanum Saint-Hilaire, Semur-en-Brionnais (Fig. In Toman: Romanik. P. 272 ​​left).
  29. ^ Gnadenpforte Basler Münster, end of the 11th century, ill. In Toman: Romanik. P. 316.
  30. ^ Tympanum Abbey Church of Sainte-Marie-de-Vallespir, 1046 (Fig. In Toman: Romanik. P. 257).
  31. Pulpit Santa Maria del Lago : eagle above right, below the bull, below left the lion, above the man (Fig. Also in Toman: Romanik. P. 310).
  32. Gospels of Helmarshausen, around 1100 (ill. In Toman: Romanik. P. 369).
  33. Heinrichs der Löwen's Gospel Book , 1188 (ill. In Toman: Romanik. P. 429); Codex Aureus , 1030-1050; the eagle at the top (where a dove appears in later depictions).
  34. Gospels from St. Aegidien, end of the 12th century (Fig. In Toman: Romanik. P. 368).