Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Church Art: Symbols of the Four Evangelists

So many of my reflections for this Blog have so far detailed the Catholic or sacramental imagination. This refers to how Catholics see (or image) reality: both about God and the world. Obviously this is one of my "passions."

As I wrote about the Catholic Spiritual Journey:

"Those who were raised Catholic do not always understand how this 'Catholic way' of seeing things differs in certain ways from how Protestants see things. Why, for example, do Catholic churches typically have statues and candles and crucifixes and holy water and incense and in general use a lot of 'stuff' in worship and a Baptist church has none of these things? Proponents would say it’s a different way of approaching God; the Catholic way is more symbol and creation friendly and the Protestant way is more symbol and creation cautious."

[More on the Catholic or sacramental approach HERE]

This week, as part of the Church Beautification Project, we are hanging the tapestries of the Symbols of the Four Evangelists in our church. The parish has had these tapestries for many years, but I wanted them to be displayed for maxim effect and now we are able to do so.

The origin of these symbols is from an interpretation of the early Church concerning the mention of the Four Beasts in the Prophet Ezekiel 1:4-10 [Read it HERE] and in the Book of Revelation 4:6-8 [Read it HERE]. The original authors of these two Bible books were not thinking of the Four Gospels, i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but each beast or figure got associated later with the Four Gospels and their authors (or Evangelists).

Here are the explanations for each symbol as interpreted in the early Church:

"St. Matthew: Winged Man, [which also symbolizes The Incarnation].—To St. Matthew was given the creature in human likeness, because he commences his gospel with the human generation of Christ, and because in his writings the human nature of Our Lord is more dwelt upon than the divine.

"St. Mark: Winged Lion, [which also symbolizes The Resurrection].—The Lion was the symbol of St. Mark, who opens his gospel with the mission of John the Baptist, ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness.’ [lions lived in the wilderness]. He also sets forth the royal dignity of Christ [compare: the lion is king of the beasts] and dwells upon His power manifested in the resurrection from the dead. The lion was accepted in early times as a symbol of the resurrection because the young lion was believed always to be born dead, but was awakened to vitality by the breath, the tongue, and roaring of its sire. 

"St. Luke: Winged Ox, [which also symbolizes The Passion].—The form of the ox, the beast of sacrifice, fitly sets forth the sacred office [of Christ the High Priest], and also the atonement for sin by blood, on which, in [Luke’s] gospel,[Luke] particularly dwells.

 "St. John: The Eagle, [which also symbolizes Ascension].—The eagle was allotted to St. John because, as the eagle soars towards heaven, [John] soared in spirit upwards to the heaven of heavens to bring back to earth revelation of sublime and awful [i.e., awesome] mysteries."
From Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, [1909]

 The Four Evangelists Tapestries: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John