A Spiritual Compass

Image (21)Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Bless the bed that I lie on

Four corners to my bed

Four angels round my head…

        What does this ancient children’s prayer and blessing of four corner bedposts have to do with our church?

Look up at the tops of the four columns supporting the dome, and you’ll see the four Gospel-writing Evangelists represented in the round mosaics on the triangular pendentives. Since we don’t know what the Evangelists looked like, the mosaics show the Christian Tetramorph  — creatures derived from Ezekiel and Revelations and popularized by Saint Jerome (who translated the Bible into Latin in the 5th century) – to symbolize their different writings:

Matthew is shown as a human figure with wings, or an angel, representing Christ’s human nature. Matthew’s Gospel begins with the story of the angel that appeared to St. Joseph in a dream, and describes Christ’s human lineage in the family of Joseph.

Mark is the lion who proclaims the dignity of Christ  (Also, incidentally, the patron of Venice, Italy). The lion is an “animal of the desert,” and Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist as the “voice crying out in the desert”  — the herald announcing the arrival of royalty. As the emblem of monarchy, the lion represents Christ the King.

Luke is the ox – a traditional sacrificial animal. His Gospel begins with Zacariah, the father of John the Baptist, going into the temple to make a sacrifice. The symbol reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

John employs  the eagle as the symbol of divinity because his Gospel begins in the heavens before Jesus came to earth: “In the beginning was the word…” The skyborne creature represents the divine nature of Jesus and his Ascension.

         The rhyme at the beginning of this piece dates back to 17th century England. In addition to making it easy to remember the names of the Evangelists, it hints at their architectural significance. Churches were often carefully oriented to the compass. Byzantine architecture, from the Eastern church – the inspiration for our Church architecture — was especially heavy on symbolism, sometimes placing one Evangelist on each corner support of a dome, at each cardinal direction, to represent the Gospel spreading out to the four corners of the world. If you check out our compass points, they’re pretty close!

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