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The Evangelists

The evangelists behind the Book of Kells are discussed in this video.

‘This book contains the concordance of the Four Gospels according to St Jerome… Here you can look upon the face of divine majesty drawn in a miraculous way; here too upon the mystical representations of the four evangelists, now having six, now four, and now two, wings. Here you will see the eagle; there the calf. Here the face of the man; there that of the lion.’

Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, Part II, chap. 71

Figure 1, from the Book of Kells, symbols of the four evangelistsFig 1. Book of Kells (fol. 290v), symbols of the four evangelists. © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, University of Dublin.

The only specific illustration singled out for description when the cleric, Gerald of Wales, encountered a richly decorated gospel book at Kildare during his twelfth-century travels in Ireland, was that of the four evangelists. These were the four people that tradition tells us wrote the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The word evangelist came from the Greek word εὐάγγελος (euangelos, ‘bringing good news’) (εὖ (eu, ‘well, good’) and ἀγγέλλειν (angelein, ‘to announce’). The four evangelists named in the gospels were the first to announce the ‘good news’, the story to be found in the gospels. The importance of these figures as authors of the gospels is continuously emphasised in depictions of them throughout the Book of Kells. In some cases they are shown in human form, but in others, like the representation described by Gerald, they are shown symbolically.

The symbolic representations of the evangelists came from two biblical sources. The first is Ezekiel’s vision in the Old (first) Testament (Ezekiel 1:4–11), where Ezekiel describes seeing in the middle of storm and fire four living creatures of human form.

‘something like four living creatures … Each had four faces and four wings … Their wings touched one another – and the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle.’

Ezekeil 1:4–11

The second is a reworking of the vision in the New (second) Testament Book of Revelation, where the four winged creatures are described as in heaven, surrounding the enthroned Jesus Christ (Revelation 4:6–8).

These scenes allude to the appearance of the divine in the world (known as a theophany). The association of each evangelist with these symbols was an allusion to each Gospel communicating the divine presence in the world.

Figure 2, from the Book of Kells, symbols of the four evangelistsFig 2. Book of Kells (fol. 1v), symbols of the four evangelists. © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, University of Dublin.

Early biblical commentators associated the different symbolic forms with different evangelists. The Book of Kells follows the interpretation favoured by St Jerome – of Matthew as a man, Mark as a lion, Luke as a calf or an ox and John as an eagle. St. Jerome, (c. 347– died 420) is regarded as the most learned of the Latin Fathers. He is most remembered for his translation of the Bible into Latin (from Greek, other old Latin versions and Hebrew). Jerome ordered the gospels as we have them today: Matthew first, then Mark, Luke and John. In his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew we find Jerome characterising each gospel by reference to its opening passage, and relating each of the four faces of the four living creatures in Ezekiel’s vision to one of the four evangelists.

  • The first face, that of a man, Jerome designates Matthew because Matthew opens his gospel by recounting Jesus Christ’s human descent, his genealogy. It begins: ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ (Matthew 1.1).
  • The second face signifies Mark. The opening lines of his gospel speak of a ‘voice of one crying out in the wilderness’. Jerome reads this to signify a lion’s roar (Mark 1:3).
  • Luke is figured in the third as the face of the calf or young ox because his gospel opens with the priest Zachariah (Luke 1:5). As priest he had a role in making animal sacrifice.
  • Fourthly, the Gospel of John, which traditionally is regarded as a deeply mystical gospel, soars on the wings of an eagle and hastens to tell of the Word, of Jesus Christ’s divinity.

This practice of using these symbols to represent the evangelists was established in Christian art by the sixth century and is found across the Christian world in art works of all mediums.

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

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