UNDERSTANDING THE STATUES OF MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE & JOHN
Holy Trinity is blessed with many beautiful statues and images of Our Lord and the saints. Front and center is the stunning Crucifix, flanking it are the statues of Mary and Joseph, and stationed in the back are St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Peter, and St. Paul. The statues of the four evangelists--Matthew, Mark, Luke & John--look down on God’s people in prayer from their perches in the upper corners of the church. We are truly surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses.”
Catholic paintings and statues are rich with symbols. Some we understand very well, such as Peter holding the “keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” Others are more obscure, such as the symbols associated with Matthew, Mark, Luke & John—man, lion, ox & eagle, respectively. What do these symbols mean and how did each come to be associated with its matching evangelist?
Matthew and John were two of the twelve disciples. Mark is thought by many scholars to have been a disciple of Peter. Luke was closely associated with Paul and assisted him in his missionary work of preaching the Gospel and planting Christian churches all over the Mediterranean world. They are called the “four evangelists” because they are the authors of the four Gospels.
The symbols of man, lion, ox & eagle are found in scripture, first in Ezekiel 1:1-21 and then in Revelation 4:6-8. In the second century, early Church Father St. Irenaeus applied these images to the four Gospel writers.
St. Matthew’s symbol is a man because his Gospel, more than all the others, puts special emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. For example, Matthew begins his Gospel with a long list of Jesus’s human ancestors and a detailed description of His birth. According to Irenaeus, Jesus is depicted as a “humble and meek man…through the whole Gospel.”
A winged lion represents St. Mark. Mark begins his Gospel with the story of John the Baptist, “a voice in the wilderness, crying out, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, clear Him a straight path.’ ” In the ancient world, an upcoming visit from a king prompted a great deal of preparation, including clearing roads to prepare them for easy travel by the royal retinue. Jesus is our king, and the lion is the symbol of a king. St. Irenaeus also likens John the Baptist’s “herald’s voice” to the roar of a lion.
The symbol for St. Luke is an ox with wings. In ancient Judaism, oxen and other animals were sacrificed by priests for various purposes, including the forgiveness of sins. Luke’s Gospel begins with the story of the priest Zechariah, who was busy with his duties in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him to announce the upcoming birth of his son, John the Baptist. The ox calls to mind Jesus’s mission as great high priest. A handy way to remember Luke’s association with an ox is to recall that the story of the Prodigal Son, which features the celebratory feasting upon the fatted calf, is found only in the Gospel of Luke.
Finally, an eagle represents St. John. His Gospel was written last, which is perhaps why it is so different from the others. Perhaps John felt no need to provide a fourth “play-by-play” account of Jesus’s life and work, but focused instead on the “highlights.” The eagle is a fitting symbol for John’s Gospel because his is the most mystical, the most lofty, the one that soars the highest to penetrate the greatest mysteries of God.
Next time you come to Mass, look up and enjoy our charming statues of the four evangelists, and remember to ask these dear brothers of ours for their prayers!
Clare T. Walker, a Holy Trinity Parishioner since 2003, writes for the National Catholic Register (www.ncregister.com). She is also an independent fiction author. Here are some handy links to her website and her books:
Clare T. Walker
Sun: 7:00am, 9:00am, 11:00am
Daily Mass - Mon-Sat: 8:00am
Confession - Sat: 2:45 - 3:45pm
Holy Trinity Catholic Parish
25 East Richmond Street
Westmont, IL 60559