How to recognize the Four Evangelists

A conversation about the iconography of the Four Evangelists while standing before Andrea da Giona, Altarpiece with Christ, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Margaret, 1434, Carrara marble, 182.9 x 203.2 x 12.7 cm (The Cloisters, part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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This altarpiece at The Met Cloisters

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the Cloisters, which is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 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.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:22] We thought it would be useful to not just identify them with their iconographic motifs, but also to explain how those motifs developed.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] This is a three-part altarpiece with Christ in the center, seated in a mandorla, surrounded by angel musicians playing music in the heavens. 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.

[0:54] Together, they tell us the story of Christ’s life, miracles, and death.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:58] 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.

Dr. Harris: [1:07] We have four winged creatures.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:10] From the top left, we have an eagle, that stands for Saint John. To the right, a winged man, that is Matthew. On the lower left, a lion, that is Saint Mark. Then, on the lower right, we have an ox, or what sometimes is described as a calf, and that is Luke.

[1:27] Each of the Four Evangelists is holding a book, which is a reference to the Gospel that they wrote.

Dr. Harris: [1:33] These derive not from a Christian Bible but actually look back to the Hebrew Bible, specifically the book of the prophet Ezekiel.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:42] In his prophecy, Ezekiel describes these four creatures with different faces of an eagle, of a man, of a lion, and of an ox.

Dr. Harris: [1:50] 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.

[2:04] In the 4th century, Saint 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.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:23] He describes, there was a shrieking in the wilderness, and this is the lion that we see for Saint Mark.

Dr. Harris: [2:29] Luke, as the ox, his gospel opens with an account of sacrifice, and oxen were often animals that were sacrificed.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:38] And with John, there was this idea of an eagle soaring to heaven gets the closest to God. That is how the eagle comes to be associated with John.

Dr. Harris: [2:47] And there you have the Four Evangelists.

[2:49] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "How to recognize the Four Evangelists," in Smarthistory, September 19, 2022, accessed May 18, 2024,