If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

How to recognize the Four Evangelists

The video explores the symbols of the four Evangelists in Christian art. Matthew is represented by a man, Mark by a lion, Luke by an ox, and John by an eagle. Recognizing these symbols deepens our understanding of the artwork's message. Created by Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Lauren] We're in the Cloisters, which is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we're looking at a marble altarpiece from the 15th century in Italy, and we wanted to talk about the symbols of the Four Evangelists, because they appear so often in art history, it's useful to be able to recognize them. - [Beth] And we thought it would be useful to not just identify them with their iconographic motifs, but also, to explain how those motifs developed. - [Lauren] This is a three part altarpiece with Christ in the center, seated in a mandorla, surrounded by angel musicians playing music in the heavens, and it's just outside of that mandorla that we see the symbols of the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authors of the four gospels, the main books, of the Christian Bible. Together, they tell us the story of Christ's life, miracles, and death. - [Beth] And this is why they are such common symbols in what we call the Middle Ages, for instance, in this image where they're just outside of this mandorla in which Christ sits. - [Lauren] And so, we have four winged creatures. - [Beth] From the top left, we have an eagle that stands for St. John, to the right, a winged man that is Matthew, on the lower left, a lion that is St. Mark, and then on the lower right we have in ox or what sometimes is described as a calf, and that is Luke. Each of the Four Evangelists is holding a book, which is a reference to the gospel that they wrote. - [Lauren] These derive not from the Christian Bible, but actually, look back to the Hebrew Bible, specifically the book of the prophet, Ezekiel. - [Beth] In his prophecy, Ezekiel describes these four creatures with different faces of an eagle, of a man, of a lion, and of an ox. - [Lauren] It's not uncommon for Christian imagery to incorporate imagery from the Hebrew Bible, because Christians understood Christ as the fulfillment of the prophecy that was written down in the Hebrew Bible. In the 4th century, St. Jerome codified these symbols for the Four Evangelists, and he does provide a rationale for each. He says that Matthew appears as a winged man, because his gospel begins with how Christ's ancestry could be traced back to King David. - [Beth] He describes there was a shrieking in the wilderness, and this is the lion that we see for St. Mark. - [Lauren] Luke as the ox, his gospel opens with an account of sacrifice, and oxen were often animals that were sacrificed. - [Beth] And with John, there was this idea of an eagle soaring to heaven gets the closest God, that is how the eagle comes to be associated with John. - [Lauren] And there you have the Four Evangelists. (gentle music)