The four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are depicted on this symbol as a winged man, an eagle, a winged lion and a winged ox (or calf). They are derived from the priest Ezekiel's prophecy after seeing a vision of four living creatures1.
Putting aside the claims by UFOlogists that Ezekiel witnessed flying saucers, we can imagine the prophet believed he was seeing a vision of God being served by Cherubim angels - winged creatures ready to fly out swiftly at God's command to do His work. In particular, this involved spreading the news of salvation, also known as 'Gospel'. This cross can therefore also be called the Gospel Cross. (See also Mission Cross.)
Matthew is represented (top left) as a Winged Man because he began his Gospel with the human Jesus, tracing a lineage to David. (In some drawings the Winged Man holds a sword and scales, representing the Archangel Michael.)
John is represented (top right) as an Eagle because of his "soaring" witness to Jesus' divine nature. The eagle soars at high altitudes, it is quick and sharp-sighted, and it has a rich symbolic history. An early legend held that the eagle would periodically renew its youth by flying near the sun and then plunging into a lake or fountain. On this basis the eagle became a symbol for the Resurrection. In addition, since the eagle soars upward, it became a symbol for Christ's Ascension. Eagles also represent Christians who have died and risen again2.
Mark is represented (bottom left) as a Lion because a lion is strong and bold3. The wings emphasize Mark's proclamation of Jesus' resurrection4. Because lion cubs are born small and immobile with their eyes shut for the first few days, there is a myth that lion cubs are born dead but come to life after three days. This reminds Christians of the Resurrection. (Thanks to Walt Disney, however, we know from "Lion King" that this isn't so. But the movie does teach us a thing or two about resurrection.) Another idea is that lions sleep with their eyes open, making them symbols of watchfulness. In fact, lions close their eyes when they go to sleep. Like other felidea, their sleep lasts on average 14 hours a day, so their eyes do open and close as they drift through various levels of sleep, as you might notice with your cat.5
Finally, we introduce Luke (bottom right) as an Ox or calf because their strength, diligence and patience, and unwearied discharge of the work to be done. As a sacrificial animal, the calf emphasizes Jesus' sacrificial atonement.
...or at least, that is the interpretation suggested by St. Jerome. Other great theologians and developers of Western Christianity had different views, as shown by one of our contributors:
Early on the Church began to associate the four evangelists with the four living creatures of Ezechiel 10:14 and Rev. 4:6-8. For instance, the writings of St. Irenæus, who first makes the association, date to the mid-100s. Other Christian theologians from the first four centuries of the Christian era had differing opinions, as seen in the table following:
|... St. Irenæus of Lyons||Matthew||John||Luke||Mark|
|... St. Augustine of Hippo||Mark||Matthew||Luke||John|
|... St. Jerome||Matthew||Mark||Luke||John|
In time iconographers and theologians adopted St. Jerome's reasoning as follows:
is represented by the man since his Gospel starts with the human ancestry of Jesus;
begins his Gospel with John the Baptist, "the voice of one crying in the wilderness," as would a roaring lion;
, opening with the vision of the priest, Zachary, is assigned the ox, the beast of sacrifice;
is associated with the eagle due to the sublimity of his soaring theological insights regarding the union of God and man in Jesus, the Word made flesh (John 1
From 'Christian Symbolism'
by Sean Wright