Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Symbols of the Evangelists in the Irish Tradition

Book of Kells, f. 27v
A seventh century Irish commentary on the four Gospels (Expositio quattuor evangeliorum) explains the four symbols of the Evangelists; “There are four symbols which designate the four Evangelists: a man’s face for Matthew; a calf’s face for Luke; a lion’s face for Mark; and an Eagle’s face for John. All these our Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled in Himself. He was a man in his birth, a calf in his sacrifice, a lion in his resurrection, and an eagle in his ascension.”

Another Irish writer applies the symbols to the Christian's life. The Lion represents the strong in faith; the Calf, the merciful; the Man, humility; and the Eagle stands for the mystic.

The ultimate source for these widespread symbols of the four evangelists is in Ezekiel 1.10 and Revelation 4.7. Next time you're in an old church keep your eye out for these four symbols, you're bound to see them somewhere.

(To my Corkonians, have you noticed them above the west front facade of St. Finbarr's Cathedral?)


  1. Fascinating Post. Would love to learn where you do your research in Early Irish Church history.

    1. Hey Jacob.

      There's a lot of great books on the early Irish church. You should check these out;

      Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, ed., A New History of Ireland, Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland (OUP, 2008)

      T.M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (CUP, 2000)

      If you want to read some primary source material, then try these;

      Sancti Columbani Opera, G.S.M. Walker (ed), (DIAS, 1957)

      loan, Michael C. The Harmonius Organ of Sedulius Scottus' (Millennium Studies, 2012)

      Bieler, The Irish Penitentials (DIAS, 1975)