Saints and the various protagonists from the Bible are always represented the same way when shown in art (same clothes or holding the same thing) so that they can be easily & immediately identified by the faithful. In order to become literate in religious decoration, we need to learn the symbols and the signs and then we can read the visual displays anywhere in the world, & touring around the headquarters of Catholicism – Italy – makes so much more visual sense & becomes more enjoyable.
During the medieval & Renaissance period, the decoration of churches and religious buildings in cities was done for instructive purposes. As the common man couldn’t understand the Latin mass nor read the bible, he would read the frescoed walls or the sculptured reliefs. Artistic decoration, also referred to as the biblia pauperum, was fundamental in the diffusion of Christianity.
The four Evangelists, Mathew, Mark, Luke & John, & their respective symbols, are splashed all around the churches & so it is handy to know how to recognise them. They are always shown holding books (they being the authors of the four gospels that make up much of the New Testament in the Bible) however, to be able to distinguish one Evangelist from another, they have their own individual symbol. Often only their symbols are shown together as a group.
St John has an eagle, St Luke a bull, St Mathew an angel (winged man) & St Mark a winged lion.
The origins of the symbols are connected to the opening image of their gospels. St Mathew begins his account of the life of Christ by writing of his ancestry & hence, has as his symbol, a winged man. St Luke starts his book with Zachariah (father of St John the Baptist) making a sacrifice in the Holy of Holies temple, so he is shown with a bull, which is traditionally an animal used in religious sacrifice. St Mark has the winged lion, as he begins his gospel with St John the Baptist & writes that he is ‘preaching like a lion roaring’. St John, who is accompanied by an eagle, begins his book with ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was God’. The eagle is the animal which soars the highest in the sky &, it was believed, was able to look directly into the sun with open eyes.
Another explanation for the symbol association with the Evangelists can be found in the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. One of the divinely inspired visions that Ezekiel received was of the throne chariot of God pulled by four animals, the eagle, bull, man & lion. In Christianity the events in the Old Testament were thought to prefigure those of the New Testament & so Ezekiel’s vision was interpreted as foreshadowing the coming of Christ, the saviour of humankind.
Happy saint spotting!