In the decades following Christ’s death, believers throughout the early-Christian world vigorously debated which texts recounting the life and works of Jesus, of the many in circulation, were the authoritative ones. Consensus emerged in the 3rd century around an accepted set of four gospels (with other accounts constituting heresy)—and thus the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John entered church canon.
As the canonical gospels spread, their authors—known as “evangelists” (from the Greek for “proclaimer of the Good News”)—became associated with symbols derived from yet other scriptural sources. In the 5th century A.D., the Biblical scholar St. Jerome compared the four evangelists with imagery from the Book of Revelation’s vivid account of the “four living creatures” that encircle God’s throne:
6 And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.
7 And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.
8 And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. (Revelation 4:6–8)
This passage derives from a similar vision recounted in the Book of Ezekiel (1:5–6, 10), written some 600 years before the birth of Christ. In turn, the four-sided creature (or “tetramorph”) figures in mythological traditions from around the ancient world—situating this iconography of the gospels within a very long storytelling tradition.
After his careful reading of the canon, St. Jerome matched a symbol with each evangelist based on each gospel’s themes. The incarnation—recounting the mystery of Jesus’s royal and divine lineage—begins the Gospel of Matthew; his symbol is thus the winged man (or angel). Mark begins his gospel with St. John the Baptist’s famous cry in the wilderness, paving the way for Christ—a cry as loud as the lion’s roar.
With an emphasis on the atonement of Christ, and how He died to redeem man, Luke is represented by the ox, the beast of sacrifice. And the mystical Gospel of John, per St. Jerome, reached new theological heights—”soaring” as the eagle does.
Dating to the earliest centuries of the church, these symbols represent Christianity’s holiest texts, a vector through which the faith spread throughout Europe and the world. They quickly became ubiquitous in Christian art, forming fundamental visual references for believers throughout Christendom. The angel, lion, ox, and eagle can be spotted in sacred works of art dating back almost 1,500 years, crafted from ivory, metal, oil on canvas, and even gold thread. Frequently, the symbols are set around either a sheep (the Lamb of God; see the cope of Benedict XV at the top of this post), or a representation of Christ Himself.
Contemporary artisans such as Donna Distefano continue to mine this rich visual history, using these symbols for adornments that are both stylish and deep in meaning. Wearing these symbols links any wearer—Christian or of any (or no) faith—to a powerful iconographic tradition dating back almost two millennia.