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Evangelist Symbols

by Paul Turner

The human, lion, ox and eagle are symbols of the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These symbols adorn many works of art, buildings and objects used in worship. Each may identify one evangelist, or the four may represent the Gospel as a whole. In addition, the four symbols taken together represent the mystery of Christ’s life. They recall in turn the birth, sacrifice, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

The symbols derive from the opening of the Book of Ezekiel. There the prophet envisions four living creatures in the middle of a glowing fire from a stormy north wind. The faces of the creatures resemble a human being, a lion, an ox and an eagle (1:10). Their mystery and their movement made such an impact on the prophet that Christian generations have seen in their appearance a foreshadowing of the Gospels of Jesus Christ. The figures appear again in Revelation 4:7.

The human being (sometimes rendered as an angel) signifies Matthew, who opens his story with the human origins of Jesus’ genealogy. The lion, according to legend, sleeps with eyes open, making it a symbol of resurrection. It depicts Mark, whose Gospel begins with the leonine John the Baptist in the desert. Luke’s account of the infancy of Jesus places the child in the Temple with Zechariah, a priest who offered sacrifice of animals including oxen. The horns of the beast may represent the old and new covenant, each with its own sacrifice. John, the evangelist whose work intently gazes on the eternal Word who shattered the darkness with his light, recalls the eagle that flies face into the sun. In this way, tradition has assigned each evangelist a proper symbol.

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Copyright © 2000, Resource Publications, Inc. 160 E. Virginia St. #290, San Jose, CA 95112, (408) 286-8505. This article may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher.  For permission e-mail info@rpinet.com.
Paul Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, MO, holds a doctorate in sacramental theology from Sant' Anselmo University in Rome.

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