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The Four Evangelists refers to the authors of the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament that bear the following ancient titles:

Traditionally, the four evangelists have been held to be two of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus of Nazareth, John and Matthew, and two "apostolic men", Mark and Luke:

  • Matthew – a former publican who was called by Jesus of Nazareth to be one of the Twelve Apostles,
  • Mark – a follower of Peter and so an "apostolic man",
  • Luke – a doctor who wrote what is now the book of Luke to a friend Theophilus. Also believed to have written the book of Acts (or Acts of the Apostles) and a close friend of Paul of Tarsus,
  • John – a disciple of Jesus and possibly the youngest of his Twelve Apostles.

They are called evangelists, a word meaning people who proclaim good news, because their books tell the good news of Jesus.[1]

Evangelists' symbols

In iconography the evangelists often appear in Evangelist portraits derived from classical tradition, and are also often represented by the following symbols, which originate from the four "living creatures" of the Book of Ezekiel (Chapter 1) and the Book of Revelation (4.6-9 and following), though neither source links the creatures to the Evangelists. The meanings accruing to the symbols grew over centuries, and were fully expressed by Rabanus Maurus, who set out three layers of meaning for the beasts, as representing firstly the Evangelists, secondly the nature of Christ, and thirdly the virtues required of a Christian for salvation:.[2]

  • Matthew the Evangelist, the author of the first gospel is symbolized by a human (not an angel as sometimes thought) - a figure of humanity and reason. Matthew's gospel starts with Jesus' genealogy from Abraham; it represents Jesus' Incarnation, and so Christ's human nature. Christians should use their reason for salvation.
  • Mark the Evangelist, the author of the second gospel is symbolized by a lion - a figure of courage and monarchy. Mark has John the Baptist preaching "like a lion roaring" at the beginning of his Gospel. It also represents Jesus' Resurrection (because lions were believed to sleep with open eyes, a comparison with Christ in the tomb), and Christ as king. Christians should be courageous for salvation.
  • Luke the Evangelist, the author of the third gospel (and presumably the Acts of the Apostles) is symbolized by an ox bull or calf - a figure of sacrifice, service and strength. Luke's gospel starts on the temple duties of Zacharias in the temple; it represents Jesus' sacrifice in the Passion, and Christ as priest (this also represents Mary's obedience). Christians should be prepared to sacrifice themselves for salvation.
  • John the Evangelist, the author of the fourth gospel is symbolized by an eagle[3] - a figure of the sky, and believed to be able to look straight into the sun. John starts with an eternal overview of Jesus the Logos and goes on to describe many things with a "higher" level of theology than the other three "terrestrial" Synoptic Gospels; it represents Jesus' Ascension, and Christ's divine nature. Christians should look directly on eternity without flinching for salvation.

Each of the symbols is depicted with wings following the biblical sources (they each have six in Revelation), but Matthew is a human not an angel, and Mark is a lion not a Griffin.

The symbols are shown with or instead of the Evangelists in early medieval Gospel Books, and are the usual accompaniment to Christ in Majesty in the same period, reflecting the vision in Revelations. They therefore represented one of the most common motifs found on church portals and apses, as well as many other locations. When surrounding Christ the man is usually at top left - on Christ's right hand, with the eagle on the other side, and the two lower beasts below, the lion on the left taking precedence over the ox. This both reflects the medieval idea of the order of "nobility" of nature of the beasts, and the text of Ezekiel 1.10. From the thirteenth century their use began to decline, as a new conception of Christ in Majesty, showing the wounds of the Passion, began to take over.[4] Sometimes in Evangelist portraits they appear to dictate to the writing evangelist.

The attribution of the four animals to individual evangelists has sometimes been disputed, although it has been mostly regarded as settled for many centuries.


Note that while Matthew is often cited as the "first Gospel" – not only owing to its place in the canon but also in view of the patristic witness to this effect – nowadays most scholars see the Gospel of Mark as written first (arguing for a date for Mark around the year A.D 65, and for Matthew around A.D. 80), also see Gospel. John's Gospel was written around A.D. 90.

It has become customary to speak of "the Gospel of Matthew" … "the Gospel of John", not least because it is shorter and rolls much smoother off the tongue; but it needs to be noted that the ancient titles do not use the genitive of possession, but the preposition "according to", signifying that each evangelist sets forth the one "Gospel of God" according to his own capacity, but not in the sense of creating his own story.

See also


  1. "The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Mark 1:1
  2. Emile Male, The Gothic Image , Religious Art in France of the Thirteen Century, p 35-7, English trans. of 3rd edn, 1913, Collins, London (and many other editions)
  3. replacing the scorpion of earlier Tetramorphs)
  4. Male, op. cit.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Four Evangelists. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.