44. The Tetramorph and more

Four Evangelists


The four Biblical evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were in the iconology of the Middle Ages a favorite subject. They were the guardians of the four corners of the world, and as such connected with the tetradic way of thinking. Like it is recorded in the nursery rhyme (song in a four-poster bed):



————   Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

————   Bless the bed that I lie on.

————   Two to foot and two to head,

————   Four to carry me when I’m dead.


Early Christian (Latin) Bible texts – in particular those of North-African origin – gave a different sequence of the evangelists: Matthew, John, Luke and Mark.  Their sequence changed to the present one (Matthew, Mark,  Luke, John) only at the end of the fourth century (384 AD), in the Latin translation by St. Jerome, the so-called ‘Vulgata‘ (HENDERSON, 1987).

The symbolism of the four evangelists is derived from the Bible book Ezekiel and the Revelations of St. John. Ezekiel wrote his visions during the Babylonian exile. He saw a whirlwind coming from the north, with a great cloud and a fire. In it, he saw four living creatures (called the ‘zooia‘ in the Revelations of St. John). The ‘tetramorph‘ became the symbol of the four evangelists and was compared to the works of Christ (MEYR, 1975):



The four evangelists and their symbols played a prominent role in the Celto-Hibernian manuscripts of the seventh, eighth and the beginning of the ninth century, like the Book of Durrow (c. 680 AD), the Gospel of St. Willibrord (c. 690 AD), the Book of Lindisfarne (c. 700 AD, fig. 311), the Gospel of St. Chad (early eighth century), the Canterbury Codex Aureus (c. 750 AD) and the Book of Kells (early ninth century)  (NORDENFALK, 1977) (fig. 312/313).


Fig. 311 – A page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. AD 698 – 721. British Museum. In: LEWIS (1970).

‘Augustine was a key source for John’s gospel, Jerome for Matthew’s, and Ambrose for Luke’s’ said Joseph F. KELLY (in: LÖWE, 1982; p. 562). ‘Thus, unlike so many contemporaries, the Irish had virtually no interest in large sections of the Old testament, little interest in the Pauline epistles, and a comparatively little interest in the Johannine literature, including the Apocalypse. On the other hand, they had a unique interest in the Catholic epistles and an exaggerated but hardly unique interest in Saint Matthew’.


Fig. 312 – The symbols of the four evangelists in the Book of Kells (f. 290v). Early ninth century AD. The quaternion is a central theme in the early-European visibility of which the Gospel books provided spectacular evidence. In: HENDERSON  (1987).


Fig. 313 – Four examples of the use of tetradic motifs in the early part of the European cultural history. 1. The tetramorph from the Trier Gospels, fol. 5v. Matthew is prominent. The manuscript was written at the monastery of Echternach in early half of the eighth century. Dom Bibliothek, Trier. In: NORDENFALK (1977); 2. A miniature of the evangelist Mark in an Irish Evangelarium in the library of St. Gall, Switzerland. Middle of the eighth century. Mark is envisaged here as a Christ, with the symbols of the evangelists in the corners. In: LÖWE (1982); 3. Symbol of the evangelist John, the eagle (imago aquile). Evangelarium of St. Willibrord. Shortly before 690 AD. DRAAK (1983); 4. The symbols of the evangelists (Homo – Leo – Vitulus – Aquila) in the Irish Book of Armagh, c. 800 AD. In: de BEFFNY (1978).

The tetramorph-scheme was used in many manuscripts and architectonic features in the hey-days of the European tetradic thinking, flourishing in the first two centuries of the second millennium (fig. 314).


Fig. 314 – Ezechiel’s vision with Christ, in a mandorla, and the symbols of the Evangelists from the Bury Bible (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College,  MS 2), around 1130 – 1140. Top-left: Matthew/homo/man/angel; top-right: John/aquila/eagle; bottom-left: Mark/ leo/lion and bottom-right: Luke/vitulus/bull/ox. Bury  Bible (Cambridge,  Corpus Christi College,  MS 2).  In: KAUFFMANN (1966).

Rupert of Deutz indicated in his ‘De divinis officiis‘ that ‘Animalia quatuor, sunt quatuor evangelistae‘ (Rupertus Tuitiensis – Opera Varia, printed by Arnold Birckman, Cologne, 1540/43). In the scheme of page 372, he swapped the ‘facies vituli‘ (oxen) and ‘facies leonis (lion). Rupert used the sequence (Homo – Vitulus – Leo – Aquila) in the same way as Joachim of Fiori did in the ‘Concordia‘ (Lib. V, cap. 85) and the ‘Liber Figurarum‘, mentioning the ‘historiae quatuor ordines speciales‘ in reference to the four stories in the Old Testament of Job, Tobias, Judith and Hester (HAHN, 1968):

————————-   Job           –       nativitas Christi      –      birth

————————-   Tobias      –       afflicto/passio         –      suffering

————————-   Judith      –       resurrectio                –     resurrection

————————-   Hester      –       ascensio                     –     ascension

The symbols are set by Joachim of Fiori in a wider context, incorporating the four modes of the ‘visio‘ (indicated as ‘intelligentia‘). REEVES & HIRSCH-REICH (1972) stated that ‘the four animalia recur constantly in Joachim’s thought’.

The following analogies were recognized in the days of Joachim of Fiore and Rupert of Deutz:


The tetradic scheme secured the base of the Christian belief and was part of a complete world view or ‘visio‘ in the twelfth century. The scheme remained present after its zenith in that period, but was often only understood in numerological terms (fig. 315/316).


Fig. 315 – The symbols of the four Evangelists as the beast with the four heads in Herrad of Landsberg’s ‘Hortus deliciarum’, twelfth century.



Fig. 316 – Maiestas Domini. Christ with the symbols of the evangelists in the church of Woldendorp (Groningen, Holland), around 1350 (Photos: Marten Kuilman – 10 Nov 1997).

The vision of Ezekiel and its message of salvation from Nicolaus de Lyra’s ‘Postiellae perpetuae in Vetus Testamentum‘ were written in the scriptorium of the monastery of Altzelle in 1344 (fig. 317).


Fig. 317 – The vision of Ezekiel in the ‘Postiellae perpetuae in Vetus Testamentum’, a book of Nicolaus de Lyra, written in the scriptorium of the monastery at Altzelle (1344). A ‘postilio‘ pointed to the eagerness of a godhead that a forgotten sacrifice is still being made. Now, it is  a person who rides the left-hand horse of the leaders of a four-horse carriage. Univ. bibl. Leipzig, Ms. 139. In: SCHNEIDER et al (1977).

In some cases numerological additions are made to the four Latin and Greek Church fathers, which are compared with the four evangelists (JAMESON, 1891):


The four Evangelists are closely related to the so-called Canon-tables. These tables are lists of comparable texts in the Biblical gospels. The tradition can be traced back to the Syrian Tatianus, who composed, around 170 AD a ‘Diatesseron‘, with three synopsis (Matthew, Mark, Luke) in the Gospel of St. John. Subsequently, Eusebius of Caesarea (around 265 – 339) devised a system of ‘canones‘ or guidelines, the ‘Canones evangeliorum‘ (von EUW, 1989).

The addition of these guidelines by Hieronymus to his translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) was used as reference by many followers. The tables consisted of twelve pages. NORDENFALK (1977) suggested a possible oriental origin of the decorated arches of the tables. He gave many examples in his loose-leaved publication on the late-antique canon-tables (NORDENFALK, 1938). The text of the four gospels was divided in ‘sectiones‘ (verses) with a continuous numbering. Each verse in the different gospels got a number, which made it possible to compare the texts (by number). The Gospels had the following sequences:

——————————-   Matthew       1    –    355

——————————-   Mark             1    –    233

——————————-   Luke              1    –    342

——————————-   John              1    –    232

From these divisions, some ten ‘canones‘ were distinguished, with the gospel of Matthew as the base of classification. Matthew-as-the-reference can be retraced to the writings of Ammonius of Alexandria, who placed the text of Matthew in a central position, with the addition of parts of the other gospels. Only in the gospels of Eusebius reached the concordance in the canon-tables its definite shape.


Fig. 318 – The Canon-tables gave an index to the concordance of the Gospels. The numbers in the columns refer to the numbering of the individual verses in the four gospels. 1. A grid canon-table, Canon X (with references in only one gospel) from the Echternach Gospels, f. 12v. HENDERSON (1987); 2. Canons VI, VII en VIII from the Book of Kells, f. 5. HENDERSON (1987); 3. Four-parted canon-table. Evangelarium of Flavigny. Autun, Bibliotheque Municipale. Ms 4, fol. 4r.; 4. Cod. 847, fol. 5r. Bibliotheque National, Vienna, sixth century. STERN, Henri (1953).

The first canon (I) consisted of four columns with verses, which occur in all four gospels. Canon II – IV contained verses, which occur in three gospels, canon V – IX comprised verses, which can be found in two gospels and, finally, the last canon (X) contained verses, which only occur in one gospel.

The canon-tables were frequently used in manuscripts in the sixth century (STERN, 1953). He gave many examples of canon-tables in his article on the ‘Le calendrier de 326‘. The arches were a classical means to divide the numbers (of the concordant verses) into rows.

The ‘Book of Kells’, written around 800, opened with ten canon-tables (and two blank pages (FRIEND, 1939; NORDENFALK, 1977; HENDERSON, 1987) (fig. 318). The manuscript, in the Trinity College, Dublin (MS. A.1.6 or MS. 58), opens with a list of ‘in quo quattuor’ texts (occurring in four gospels) with a continuation on folio 2. Folio 2v. opens with Canon II (‘in quo tres‘, Matthew, Mark and Luke). This is continued on folio 3. A change in format takes place. The short Canon III is written on folio 3v, without illustrations. Folio 4 gives Canon IV (‘in quo tres‘, Matthew, Mark and John): left the angel and to the right the eagle. Canon V is given on folio 4v (‘in quo duo’, Matthew and Luke) and means a new change in style: two great arches and a single arch over those two indicate a ‘duality’ of the table. The same  design  is used in folio 5, which  provides  in Canon VI the texts of Matthew and Mark, in Canon VII texts from Matthew and John and in Canon VIII verses from Mark and Luke (fig. 318 – 2).

Canon IX, on folio 5v, compares passages from St. Luke and St. John, and the copyist employed a grid-system, together with folio 6 (Canon X). This is the third change of style within the Canon-tables at the beginning of the Book of Kells. The grid illustration indicates, according to HENDERSON (1987), a possible archaic representation of the IXth and  Xth Canon, like it also featured in the Echternach Gospels (fig. 318 – 1). FRIEND (1939) was of the opinion that the use of the grid was a sign of degeneration, in which the Book of Kells ‘was completed in some inferior scriptorium after the marvellous artist of the earlier pages was no longer available.’ HENDERSON (1987), pointing to other archaic forms, does not agree with that conclusion.

BEFFNY, de, Brian (Ed.)(1978). De Ierse Wereld. De geschiedenis en cultuur van het Ierse volk. Mercatorfonds, Antwerpen. ISBN 90-6153-090-3

BRAUNFELS, Wolfgang (Ed.)(1965). Karl der Grosse. Werk und Wirkung. Zehnte Ausstellung unter den Auspizien des Europa Rates. Aachen. Schwann, Dusseldorf.

DRAAK, Maartje (1983). Willibrord tussen Ieren en Friezen. pp. 200 – 203 in: HARBISON, Peter (et al.)(1983). Gouden eeuwen in Ierland. (tr. Bernadette Schuddeboom-Tolenaar). Openbaar Kunstbezit, Weesp. Kunstschriften, jrg. 27, no. 6, november/december 1983. ISBN 90-6515-023-4

EUW, von, Anton (1989). Karolingische verluchte evangelieboeken (tr. ‘Das Buch der Vier Evangelien: Kölns Karolingische Evangelienbücher’. Museumdienst Köln). Photo’s: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln. Rijks-museum Meermanno-Westreenianum, ‘s-Gravenhage/ Gary Schwartz SDU, Maarssen/’s-Gravenhage. ISBN 90-6179-087-5

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HAHN, Christoph  Ulrich (1968). Geschichte der Pasagier Joachims von  Floris, Amalrichs von Bena und anderer verwandter Sekten. Band 3.  Scientia Verlag, Aalen.

HENDERSON, George (1987).  From Durrow to Kells. The Insular Gospel Books 650 – 800. Thames and Hudson, London.

HUBERT, Jean, PORCHER, Jean, VOLBACH, W.F. (1967). L’Europe des Invasions. Serie: L’Univers des formes. Editions Gallimard, Paris. Also in:

JAMESON, Anna (1891). Sacred and Legendary Art. Longmans, Green & Co., London.

KAUFFMANN, C.M. (1966). The Bury Bible. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College,  MS 2. Journal Warburg & Courtauld Institute, Vol. XXIX, pp. 60 – 81, 1966. The Warburg Institute/University of London.

KELLY, Joseph F. (1982). Hiberno-Latin theology. In: LÖWE, Heinz (Ed.) (1982). Die Iren und Europa im früheren Mittelalter. 2 Vol.; Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart. ISBN 3-12-915470-1

LEWIS, John N.C. (1970). Anatomy of Printing. The Influences of Art and History on its Design. Faber and Faber Limited, London. ISBN 0 571 08768 X

LÖWE,  Heinz (Ed.)(1982). Die Iren und Europa im früheren Mittelalter.  2 Vol.; Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart. ISBN 3-12-915470-1

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NORDENFALK, Carl (1938). Die spätantiken Kanontafeln. Kunstge-schichtliche Studien über die eusebianische Evangelien-Konkordanz in den vier ersten Jahrhunderten ihrer Geschichte. Oskar Isacsons Boktryckeri AB., Götenborg.

  –  (1977). Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting. Book Illumination in the  British Isles 600 – 800. Chatto & Windus, London. ISBN 0 7011 2242 0

REEVES, Marjorie &  HIRSCH-REICH, Beatrice (1972). The Figurae of Joachim of Fiore. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

SCHNEIDER,  Ambrosius; WIENAND, Adam; BICKEL, Wolfgang & COESTER, Ernst (1977).  Die Cistercienser.  Geschichte. Geist. Kunst. Wienand Verlag. Köln. ISBN 3 87909 074 2

STERN,  Henri (1953). Le Calendrier de 354. Etude sur son texte et sur ses illustrations.  Institut francais d’archeologie de  Beyrouth. Bibl. Archeol. et Hist. Tome LV. Impremerie National, Paris.

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