Art of the Gospels, Part 1, The Evangelists

P1080379We enjoy planning travel well in advance of our arrival at a destination. Studying natural and cultural history, provide us a greater appreciation of the landscape, cities, churches and museum when we actually view them. Anticipating a trip to Rome next Spring, we began collecting travel guides. These lead to points of interest for which we wanted more information. With the internet, we easily found copies of museum catalogues, which we would have previously had to purchase at the museum gift shop… and haul around until we returned home. Skimming through the pages, I recalled how much of the art in Rome depicts either Roman antiquity or Christian stories.

To better appreciate these frescos, paintings, and sculptures, I decided to read Plutarch’s Lives, and the Gospels. I found Plutarch’s histories of Greek and Roman leaders on my bookshelf.  An internet search provided me with an edition of the Harmony of the Gospels. This places the four Gospels in sequence, with each text set in parallel columns when two, three, or all four record specific events. Or, when only one writer recorded an event, that text stands alone.

Soon enough the idea for a blog series came to mind. Over a sequence of weeks, I would post one blog, following the chronology of the Gospels, using the art which we will see in Rome to illustrate the events of Jesus’ life. Looking at the outline of the Harmony text, I noticed that it divided Jesus’ life into 13 sections. We will arrive in Rome for Passion Week and Easter. I counted from the beginning of Advent through the week we leave for Italy during Lent. What do you know, exactly 13 weeks. Thus we start today.

P1080352To start with the Gospels, we should look a the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Scholars conclude that they wrote their versions of Christ’s life about 30 or 60 years after the events, thus around 65 to 95 AD. Plutarch lectured in Rome and compiled his Lives around 79 AD. The Gospel writers were a generation of eye-witnesses of Christ’s ministries and would soon pass. Other versions of the gospel message exits, but in less cohesive fashion, or written several generations later, based on the legends, rather than observation or participation.

Artistically, each Evangelist has a symbol.  This fresco, painted by Fra Angelico, on the ceiling of the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican, depicts each Evangelists with his symbol.


Matthew receive counsel from an angle, representing the interaction between the divine and human.


Mark is the lion of prophecy roaring the gospel message.


Luke is the ox of sacrifice in order to reunite the wayward child with the father.


And, John is the eagle which sores to lofty heights in its telling of the life of Jesus.

P1080266These images show up in the ceilings of churches and pages of illuminated manuscripts. Most of them are easily overlooked or absorbed into the design of larger art patterns and gospel themes.  In St. Peter’s Basilica most people are going to notice Bernini’s altar to St. Peter, not the mosaic of John the Evangelist in the ceiling.









P1080377Matthew and the angle interacting, has received more attention.  Many of these images suggest that Matthew needed a tutor checking his spelling and syntax.  Or, worse yet, Matthew as the holy clerk taking dictation, as in this illuminated manuscript.  Though Matthew is the central subject, with the angle to his right, the busy and colorful landscape nearly obscures their interaction from our view.



P1080321In contrast, Guido Reni’s painting presents Matthew as an aged man, pondering his version of the gospel. A child-like angle stretches up to whisper to Matthew. Rather than dictating or copy-edit the record, the angle helps Matthew reminisce and record the events that changed his life from a demonized tax collector to one of the disciples.  Two artistic decisions increase our sense of the interaction between Matthew and the angle.  Reni eliminates the background setting, with the warm-brown tones accentuating Matthews thick white hair.  Second, Matthew and the angle, only inches apart, lock their eyes, with the angle enumerating a questions on its index finger, as if it were a grandchild asking “Grandpa, tell me about…”

A criticism of the Gospels is their different orientations, especially when one Evangelist recorded events not contained in any of the others. The explanation that I recall from my youthful readings of the Gospels was that each Evangelist wrote for a different audience. However, whether oriented to Jews, Greeks, or Romans, each wrote in the context of Roman culture given the political structure that the Roman’s brought to the Empire which it administered.

Numerous stories from the Gospels include details and reference to the Roman government. Reading Plutarch’s biographies added more cultural perspective on the hundreds of years of Roman governing, which lead up to the time of Christ’s ministry. This raised a question of how much the Gospels and subsequent art might have been influenced by Roman culture.

Given that much of the art which we will be seeing in Roman was created 1000 to 1500 years after Christ, and during a time when Greek and Roman texts and sculpture were being discovered, additional layers of cultural influence permeate the images.

P1080292For instance, God bearing children with women were common lore in Greek and Roman mythology. In many of the Annunciation paintings, God shines a beam of golden light to Mary, representing both the insemination and knowledge of Jesus’ conception.  Gentile da Fabriano’s Annunciation has the beam of light from God passing through the window in the upper left wall, illuminating directly on Mary’s abdomen.  If you needed a hint, the curtain in the background is open, revealing her bed.  Immaculate conception is more than a concept.

P1080243In a similar fashion, Jupiter showers Danae with gold coins in Titian’s painting of a male god have sex with a woman. Interesting that the same Cardinals who commissioned church paintings of the Annunciation scene ordered up this one. Linda just calls it Papal Porn (many of the female nude images were kept locked up in secret collections of various Cardinals for private viewing of guests, hmmmm.)

Christ’s followers often requested signs and miracles to convince people of Jesus’ powers. Several of these event related to food. His first miracle was making wine out of water at the wedding in Cana. Plutarch records similar accounts attributed to Roman kings, such as Numa Pompilius. …they say, he once invited a large group of citizens to dine with him. The dishes set before them were plain and the food itself most ordinary. As they began to eat, he suddenly said that the goddess who was a friend had come to visit him; where upon the room as instantly furnished with costly drinking cups, and the table loaded with all kinds of meats and dishes.

Furthermore, a tradition of Roman rulers was to distribute loaves of bread to those attending gladiatorial games. When Jesus fed the 5,000, then 4,000 with a couple of loaves (and fish), might this have been a subtle reference to the expect behavior of a leader?

P1080278Finally, the culmination of Jesus’ life was his death, resurrection, and ascension to be with God. By the time of Jesus’ life, Roman rulers had become cult figures asserted to have been deified and transported to heaven. Plutarch reports this account of one of the founders of Rome, Romulus, disappearing, then revealing himself going to heaven, though Plutarch scoffs at the veracity of this account. The patricians,… decreed divine honors to Romulus, as to one not dead but translated to a higher sphere. And, Proculus,… swore that he had seen Romulus caught up to heaven in his armor, and had heard his voice bidding them to thenceforth call him Quirinus.  Domenico Maria Canuti’ ceiling fresco of the Apotheosis of Romulus at Palazzo Altieri uses similar perspectives as fresco of Christ, the Virgin Mary and various saints rising to heaven on clouds upheld and trumpeted by angles.

To go back to the four symbols of the Evangelists, each had links to Roman culture.  Mercury, the messenger of Jupiter, had wings.  Lions were a symbol of strength and challenge in Hercules’ feats.  Ox’s show up in the myths of Ulysses as well as Hercules, and were trained to willingly go to sacrifice (in Roman tradition, if an animal refused to go to the altar, it was set free and another was found).  And, Eagle represented Jupiter, soaring above all other gods.

My point is to put the Gospels into the larger context of the Roman culture, not to challenge the Evangelist’s accuracy. This might lead to a couple of conclusions, based on the concept that Jesus’ message would migrate from salvation for the Jews, to salvation of the Gentiles. Act 1:8 records Jesus parting words to his followers, “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

Maybe the Evangelist had Roman culture in mind when they selected the narratives of Jesus’ life. Or, maybe Jesus (as God) knew what he had to do to leave an account that would not only attempt to convert his Jewish followers, but which Roman citizens would later understand.

As Plutarch writes in his Life of Pericles, “We should… look for the best, not merely to contemplate it, but to be benefited by the contemplation. Just as those colors are healthful whose fresh and pleasant hues strengthen and stimulate our eyes; so with our mental vision we should fix our sight on things which by the joy they give it attract it to its own proper good. Such things are acts of virtue, which create in the minds of those who study them a strong desire and eagerness to imitate them.”

P1080381* * For my sources for the art in the series, I will limit myself to that which we may encounter in Rome. Most of this art will be from the Romanesque to Renaissance to Baroque era, in that this is when artistic patronage flourished in Roman. Many of these art images are not the first we remember. Raphael’s Madonna and Child images are in Florence. Di Vinci’s Last Supper is in Milan, Michealangilo’s best known works in Rome are of Old Testament characters.

Many of the paintings and sculptures in P1080241Rome are of saints, not Gospel accounts. The gallery and museum guides in which I found these photos include the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Galleries, and numerous churches in the city. Some of the original paintings fill the walls of a chapel, or could be as small as a few inches high, as part of an altar piece which could contain half a dozen or more depictions of events. Of course, I am extracting them from books, which condense these images into a few inches, and reproducing them into a blog photo a couple of inches at best. Do visit the originals some day.


P1080245 P1080281

P.S. The opening picture for this blog is a 3rd century Roman sculpture of a shepherd carrying a sheep.  It has no known link to either the images in the Psalms of David, nor to Jesus, the Good Shepherd.  Whenever, viewing art, be aware of your own history that may guide you to wrong conclusions.  Otherwise, enjoy a well done piece.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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