Tag: evangelists

St. John the Omnipresent

harpies (2)Have you ever noticed how many times St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is represented in our church?

Saint John is the left-hand figure in Nicola D’Ascenzo’s Saint Cecilia window in the choir loft based on an altarpiece by Raphael. He is also the right-hand figure in the round stained glass window on the Mary side of the church, inspired by Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies.” He kneels beside Jesus in the middle long window on that side of the church, as Jesus names Peter; and he hides in the bushes in the Agony in the Garden window. He is next to Jesus at the Last Supper on the freestanding altar from MBS and he kneels with Mary at the foot of the crucifixion mosaic.

johnEmblematically, Saint John’s apostolic symbol is near the 47th Street door; his Gospel is quoted above a former confessional; and he appears as one of the four Gospel-writing Evangelists, on the pillars supporting our dome. His sculptured eagle symbol also appears below the lectern on the old high pulpit, where the Bible would rest, since his gospel begins “In the beginning was the word…”

Why is St. John all over our church?

t007Beardless John is said to have been the youngest apostle and brother of James. As one of the original twelve, he was present at all the big moments in the adult life of Jesus. He also thought to have written one of the four Gospels, describing those events. According to his own account, he was the first to believe that Christ had risen from the dead. He is said to have written several Epistles, later,  from Ephesus (Turkey today). And his contributions have been studied and commemorated by scholars and artists through history.

Based on his identity as gospel-writer, various groups have adopted St. John as their patron over the centuries: he is invoked by writers, theologians, and those in the book trade. But all the attributions are based on traditions about him: we know very little about the real man. Scholars are not even  entirely sure that the Apostle and the Evangelist are the same person!  And debate continues over whether he also wrote the book of Revelations.

This mysterious “facelessness” allows John, known traditionally as the “Beloved Disciple,”  to be our symbolic representative.  When he participates in the Last Supper or kneels before the cross, we put ourselves in his place and share his experience. It’s a useful spiritual exercise, although  too much of a backward focus can also lead us away from the message that we need to act in the spirit of Christ today!

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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!