Images of the four evangelists in the Book of Kells are found both grouped together and individually. The grouping of the symbols is a reminder to the reader that the gospel tells the same story. Each gospel tells the story of Jesus Christ, but each has an emphasis on different parts of that story. It is by reading the four accounts that we can piece together the full picture.
Close to the beginning of the Book of Kells are a number of pages with canon tables. These were charts designed to cross-reference the occurrence of the same stories across the four gospels. On several of these pages, the tables are topped by some or all of the evangelists and their symbolic form – the winged figures of a man, a lion, an ox and eagle. The artists demonstrate great imagination in the variety of ways in which the symbols are represented and combined. That said, there are some consistencies. For example, the symbol of Matthew, the man, is shown holding his gospel book while the others are not. The symbol of Mark, the lion, is consistently shown with a long, protruding tongue.
This may be an allusion to passages in the Bible that strengthen the authority of scripture. For example, from the Book of Kings, “the Spirit of the Lord hath spoken by me, and God’s word is my tongue”,
and from the book of Psalms, Psalm 1:18, “my tongue shall pronounce thy word”.
A reminder of the unity of the gospel stories was also originally included at the start of each gospel text, this time with an image of the four evangelists grouped around a cross, a key symbol for Christ. On Folio 27v, the page that prefaces the gospel of St. Matthew, the sanctity of the evangelists is emphasised by adorning each with a halo. On the page that prefaces the Gospel of Mark, the central cross and the medallions that surround each evangelist is picked out in bright yellow, a substitute for gold which still shimmers brightly on the page. On Folio 290v, the page prefacing the Gospel of John, the figures are placed around an x-shaped cross. We call this a saltire across.
There is a lozenge, a diamond shape, at the centre of the cross. The lozenge is another symbol for Christ. This imagery again helps to emphasise the link between the evangelist and his story.
Together with these so-called four evangelists pages, each gospel was also originally prefaced with an image of its author. This page was known as a portrait page. Only two of these have survived in the Book of Kells – portraits that are now bound at the start of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John. Much like an author portrait on the back of a modern novel, the idea was to clearly identify the text with its author and also to confirm its authenticity. The figure of Matthew is shown holding his gospel book in his left hand, his right hand enigmatically placed under his purple cloak, in his breast.
Matthew is surrounded by the symbols of the other evangelists – the ox, two lions, and the eagle. Although he appears to be standing, the arms and back of the throne can be seen beside and behind him, adding to his air of authority. The figure of John is also enthroned and holds up his gospel book for all to see. Here we are left in no doubt that he is the writer of the gospel, as in his right hand, he holds an oversized pen, and there is a small inkwell at his foot. The inspiration behind his writing may also be included in the illustration.
Emerging from behind the prominent crosses that frame the figure are the hands, the feet, and the deformed or mutilated head of a figure. Perhaps this is to remind us of the crucified Christ.
One of the most striking features of both faces are their piercing stares, emphasised by the chalky whiteness of their faces. They are enigmatic. They are similar to the tradition of Byzantine icons, and so we are led to recall the sixth-century writings of Agatheus, who stated of such paintings, “the eyes encourage deep thoughts. And art is able, by means of colours, to ferry over to the object the prayer of the mind”. In other words, the eyes of the figures facilitate the bonds between the divine and the earthly.
‘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.’
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.
We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.
We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas. You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.