The Lion. The Ox, the Eagle and the Angel – the 4 sacred symbols of the Evangelists

An imposing Celtic Cross Copyright Carole Tyrrell

An imposing Celtic Cross
Copyright Carole Tyrrell

This beautiful and large Celtic Cross was found in St Margarets Churchyard in Lee, SE London. I had been exploring the old St Margarets churchyard which is across the road. This contained the original St Margarets church, now a ruin, and some very interesting tombstones and memorials.
But the current St Margarets is a large Victorian building with some very colourful 19th century stained glass and, more unusually, beautiful wall paintings. These are pre-Raphaelite in style and well worth seeing if you’re in the area and the church is open. St Margarets also has windows made from pieces of broken stained glass which gives a jigsaw effect and kaleidoscope patterns on the floor when the sun shines through.
This memorial is a Celtic Cross in style and a symbol of the Arts & Crafts movement that was popular from 1880-1910 when there was a Celtic revival. The epitaph is written in curvy Art Nouveau writing and was well worn which rendered it virtually indecipherable. All I could make out was that it was in memory of a deceased wife. This was a real pity as I would have liked to have known more about the person who was buried there.

A closer view of the memorial .Copyright Carole Tyrrell
A closer view of the memorial .Copyright Carole Tyrrell
The for symbols of the Evangelists in each corner Copyright Carole Tyrrell
The for symbols of the Evangelists in each corner
Copyright Carole Tyrrell

I noticed the four symbols; one on each corner of the cross within the wheel. An ox, an eagle, a lion and an angel.. I’d never previously seen this combination on a funerary monument and thought, in my ignorance, that it might have meant that the deceased had loved animals.
But, after posting my photos of the memorial onto The Cemetery Club Facebook page a fellow member, Connie Fairchild, replied saying that she thought that the symbols might represent the four evangelists. She was kind enough to post a link to a relevant site which was enormously helpful.
The four symbols are:
Human/Angel = Matthew
Lion = Mark
Ox = Luke
Eagle = John

These were the four canonical gospels with the for living creatures that surround God’s throne. In the Book of Revelations chapter 4: verses 5-11
‘Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind .
Verses 4:7 Apocalypse of Revelation of John

‘…the first living creature, like a LION, the second living creature like an OX, the third living creature with a face like a HUMAN face, and the fourth living creature like a flying EAGLE.

The four living creatures are also mentioned in Ezekiel Chapter One verses 1-14, Ezekiel, Chapter 10, verses 1-22 and Daniel Chapter 7, verses 1-8. The creatures are also mentioned in other religious texts such as St Irenaeus of Lyons and St Augustine of Hippo.
Wikipedia has quite a lot to say on tetramorphs

‘The four symbols are also known as a tetramorph. This is a symbolic arrangement of four different elements. Tetramorph is derived from the Greek tetra, meaning four, and morph, shape. Also four forms or shapes.
In Christian art, the tetramorph is the union of the symbols of the Four Evangelists, the four living creatures derived from the Book of Ezekiel into a single figure, or more commonly, a group of four figures. The Evangelists portraits are often accompanied by the tetramorphs or the symbols often used to represent them. Each symbol can be described as a tetramorph in the singular, and a group as ‘the tetramorphs but usually only when all four are together. Tetramorphs were very common in early medieval art especially in illuminated Gospel books, They are still common in religious art up to the present day.

Other examples of the combination of different elements are the Sphinx in Egypt which has the body of a lion and the head of a human.’

The animals associated wit the Christian tetramorph originate in the Babylonian symbols of the four fixed signs of the zodiac; the Ox representing Taurus; the lion representing Leo, the eagle representing Scorpio; the man or angel representing Aquarius. In Western astrology the four symbols are associated with the elements of, respectively Earth, Fire, Water and Air. The creatures of the Christian tetramorph were also common in Egyptian, Greek and Assyrian mythology. The early Christians adopted this symbolism and adapted it for the four Evangelists as the tetramorph, which first appears in Christian art in the 5th century.’

You can read more about tetramorphs here

I have also personally seen a tetramorph in Ely Cathedral.

So this is a deeply religious monument. The Cross and the evangelistic symbols are beautifully carved and it really stands out in the churchyard due to its size and position.
Since seeing this one I have found two more in Brompton Cemetery but not as well carved and, although large, not as imposing.

This was the nicer of the Brompton ones. Copyright Carole Tyrrell
This was the nicer of the Brompton ones.
Copyright Carole Tyrrell

Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell

5 thoughts on “The Lion. The Ox, the Eagle and the Angel – the 4 sacred symbols of the Evangelists

  1. Colin Taylor

    this was stolen from the Egyptians, the true meaning goes to the trinity of Egypt,Osiris the man, Isis the bull Horus the Eagle and the lion for the age of Leo , there is only one time you ever see the four constellations in the sky and thats in the age of Leo this is where the main stars of Taurus and Aquila map the pyramids, Stonehenge tells the same story as the pyramids one circle for the Sun=Isis,one circle for the moon =Osiris ans the Altar stone =Horus, take a good look at the picture that Sir William Blake painted of the Trinity with Stonehenge. need more help look at the information on my facebook page. thank you.


    1. Dear Colin
      thanks very much for your interesting comment on the 4 Sacred Symbols of the Evangelists.
      I was unaware of any Egyptian connection until now.
      I will certainly check out your Facebook page.
      Thanks again


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