In Christian tradition, the Four Evangelists are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authors attributed with the creation of the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament that bear the following titles: Gospel according to Matthew; Gospel according to Mark; Gospel according to Luke and Gospel according to John.
In iconography, the evangelists often appear in Evangelist portraits derived from classical tradition, and are also frequently represented by the symbols which originate from the four "living creatures" that draw the throne-chariot of God, theMerkabah, in the vision in the Book of Ezekiel (Chapter 1) reflected in the Book of Revelation (4.6-9ff), though neither source links the creatures to the Evangelists. Images normally, but not invariably, appear with wings like angels. The meanings accruing to the symbols grew over centuries, with an early formulation by Jerome, and were fully expressed by Rabanus Maurus, who set out three layers of meaning for the beasts, as representing firstly the Evangelists, secondly the nature of Christ, and thirdly the virtues required of a Christian for salvation: One might note that these animals may have originally have been seen as representing the highest forms of the various types of animals, i.e., man, the king of creation as the image of the Creator; the lion as the king of beasts of prey (meat-eating); the ox as the king of domesticated animals (grass-eating) and the eagle as the king of the birds.
The symbols of the four Evangelists are here depicted in the Book of Kells. The four winged creatures symbolize, clockwise from top left, Matthew, Mark,John, and Luke.
- Matthew the Evangelist, the author of the first gospel account is symbolized by a winged man, or angel. Matthew's gospel starts with Joseph's genealogy from Abraham; it represents Jesus' Incarnation, and so Christ's human nature. This signifies that Christians should use their reason for salvation.
- Mark the Evangelist, the author of the second gospel account is symbolized by a winged lion – a figure of courage and monarchy. Mark has John the Baptist preaching "like a lion roaring" at the beginning of his Gospel. It also represents Jesus' Resurrection (because lions were believed to sleep with open eyes, a comparison with Christ in the tomb), and Christ as king. This signifies that Christians should be courageous on the path of salvation.
- Luke the Evangelist, the author of the third gospel account (and the Acts of the Apostles) is symbolized by a winged ox or bull – a figure of sacrifice, service and strength. Luke's account begins with the duties of Zacharias in the temple; it represents Jesus' sacrifice in His Passion and Crucifixion, as well as Christ being High priest (this also represents Mary's obedience). The ox signifies that Christians should be prepared to sacrifice themselves in following Christ.
- John the Evangelist, the author of the fourth gospel account is symbolized by an eagle – a figure of the sky, and believed by Christian scholars to be able to look straight into the sun. John starts with an eternal overview of Jesus the Logos and goes on to describe many things with a "higher" christology than the other three (synoptic) gospels; it represents Jesus' Ascension, and Christ's divine nature. This symbolises that Christians should look on eternity without flinching as they journey towards their goal of union with God.
Each of the symbols is depicted with wings, following the biblical sources first in Ezekiel 1-2, and in Revelation. The symbols are shown with, or in place of, the Evangelists in early medieval Gospel Books, and are the usual accompaniment to Christ in Majesty when portrayed during the same period, reflecting the vision in Revelation. They were presented as one of the most common motifs found on church portals and apses, as well as many other locations. When surrounding Christ, the figure of the man usually appears at top left – above Christ's right hand, with the lion above Christ's left arm. Underneath the man is the ox and underneath the lion is the eagle. This both reflects the medieval idea of the order of "nobility" of nature of the beasts (man, lion, ox, eagle) and the text of Ezekiel 1.10. From the thirteenth century their use began to decline, as a new conception of Christ in Majesty, showing the wounds of the Passion, came into use. Sometimes in Evangelist portraits they appear to dictate to the writing evangelist.