Christianity did not evolve in a vacuum. It emerged from a conglomerate of Jewish, Greek, and other influences that impacted its formation. In this blog I’m going to touch upon theological issues that outside influences had on Christianity’s development, but mostly I’m going to keep focus on some of it’s symbolism, namely, St Mark’s winged lion.
Legend has it that Mark, an apostle of Jesus, travelled around the Roman Empire evangelising. Of note, he went to Venice in Italy and Alexandria in Egypt. These two destinations are of interest because Mark apparently travelled to Venice, converted some people to Christianity, then went on to Alexandria where he lived for a few years before being killed by a mob of pagans (at the time they were simply average people who believed in the common religious practices of the day). In 828 Mark’s remains are believed to have been stolen from Alexandria and taken to Venice. It is speculated that Mark’s head is still in Alexandria (the thieves apparently only did a partial job of stilling the 800 year old corpse).
In 2011 I had the privilege of travelling to Venice (happy snaps below) and while I was there, one of the things that struck me was all the depictions of St Mark as a winged lion holding a book.
My knowledge of history and mythology wasn’t as strong back then as it is now, so the best I could do was stare in awe and wonder at the marvellous artworks like the ones below.
As I admired these images, I tried to decode their deeper meaning. There was clearly some symbolic and mystical meaning behind the decision to represent St Mark in this manner but I could not work out what it was. Lion = courage = heart. Wings = angelic = saint. Book = words = word of God. That was pretty much all I could decipher.
Venice left a lasting impression on me, even though we (my kids and I) only stayed there three days. St Mark’s Basilica was so amazing that I shed a tear when admiring the interior with all its paintings, arches, marble, stained glass, gold, and other trimmings. We were there during winter, it was cold, but it was fabulous. Even my son, then nine, felt the urge to be poetic and he coined the phrase ‘the luscious, humble waters of Venice!’
It was extraordinary to be travelling via boat to and from our accommodation. I observed the locals going about their everyday life such as pushing prams, attending to everyday business like grocery shopping, and riding bikes along the side walks – cars are forbidden in Venice but we saw one or two little exceptions, and I mean little exceptions as in little cars – and I was curious as to what it was like be to be born and raised in such a spectacular place. Everything was so different to my sense of normal suburbia but to the Venetian locals my extraordinary experience was their normal. It made me wonder how living in an environment like Venice would impact a person’s mind and behaviour.
But anyway, I’m getting distracted. This isn’t supposed to be a travel blog or reminiscent prose. From the Cathedral to the Doge’s palace, the Medieval and Renaissance artworks depicting St Mark’s signature symbol had me curious. The motif was clearly significant but its deeper meaning alluded me.
Not too long ago, my curiosity was sparked anew when I noticed how similar the symbol for St Mark’s was to Ancient Greek sphinxes.
The main differences between St Mark’s winged lion and a Greek sphinx is that the latter is usually depicted with a book (but not always) and the former has a feminine head. Still, the similarity between the two symbols is remarkable.
Winged animals can be found in other traditions too, like the in Ancient Babylonian cultures which had female Lamma and male Lamassu.
It’s difficult to speak of sphinxes without considering Ancient Egyptian too. These majestic icons don’t have wings but they do have the body of a lion and the head of a human (usually male).
Given the tradition of lion representations throughout the ancient worlds, I am curious as to why the Christians chose to adapt the symbol to their purposes. To explore this further, some insight can be obtained by the identification of each of the four Gospels within the tetramorph that aligns four winged entities with the four evangelists.
In the course of Christianity’s development, the harmonisation of the tetramorph with the four apostles has been disputed. The most common pattern being that proposed by Jerome (c.342-347 – 420CE) who aligned Mark with the lion, Luke with an ox, John with an eagle, and Matthew with a man.
Justification of the representation of the apostles with animals comes from a few biblical sources, such as Ezekiel 1:10 (Old Testament/Torah) which reads:
As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.King James Version, BibleHub, 2020
References to symbolisms of the animals can also be found in the Book of Revolutions:
Revelation 4:7 And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.”King James Version, BibleHub, 2020
Revelation 5:5 “And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.”King James Version, BibleHub, 2020
As suggested above, the symbol of a lion in Christianity can be traced back to the Jewish tradition of the Lion of Judah which represents the Israelite tribe of Judah. The reference for this comes from Genesis 49:9:
Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?King James Version*, BibleHub, 2020
The bible references are useful, however, the tetramorph also represents the four classical elements of fire, air, water, and fire. Further, the four elements have a connection to numerous other connotations such as the Sumerian zodiac, seasons of the year, equinoxes and solstice, cardinal directions, and Ancient Greek mythology. I struggle to imagine the Christians not knowing about other applications of the tetramorph and the use of winged animals in other traditions. Or as Origen (c.184 – c.253) pointed out, the Christians are best viewed in the context of their intellect being in accordance with the spiritual theories of their age (Roberts, 1949). However, simply applying the meanings of older symbols to Christian context does not seem appropriate because the nature of Christianity was to form a new religion and move away from older religions, i.e., what we now call paganism. Then again, the classic four elements were also considered serious scientific principles all the way up to at least the fifteenth century, so perhaps the conjecture that Christianity borrowed ‘pagan’ symbols is not the correct paradigm to use.
I should add, that I am uncertain as to when and where exactly the symbol of St Mark as a winged lion holding a book first emerged. Establishing this could help decode why the symbolism was applied.
Russell (1997) presents an interesting assessment of the four elements and their interconnectedness in an article titled The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. He makes the point that different cultures in differing times and locations re-interpreted the four elements in accordance with their prior customs, knowledge and experiences. After reading his paper I began to formulate the analogy that perhaps St Mark’s winged lion symbol needs to be viewed as being like football. Weird I know, just stick with me for a minute I’ll make this work. What I mean is, there are many different types of football, for example soccer, rugby, and Aussie rules. Essentially, there is one main aim in all these variations, that is to kick a ball to score goals. Rules like how many players on each team, scoring protocols, and markings on the field can differ from one variation of football to the next. Further, there can be different leagues within the same genre of sport. Comparatively, the four elements are like ‘football’ in that there are different ways of approaching a central aim which, arguably, is to explain spiritual principles of Life. Different leagues of religion can have different emphasises, rules, and customs. Hence, generalising all ancient symbols as having the same meaning is a bit like generalising and saying that all the rules across football variants are the same. To continue this metaphor a little further, just as each football genre uses a different type of ball, the application of lions and/or winged animals has differing significance in accordance to the belief system which it belongs to. Alternatively, the symbols could be viewed as simply being mascots.
In sum, identifying visual similarities between St Mark’s symbolism as a winged lion with older traditions is relatively easy, so too is tracing sources of lion symbols in Judea-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Zoroastrian traditions. However, all the scattered references don’t fully explain exactly what they all mean. Do the Ancient Greek sphinx have the same significance as lion forms in Ancient Babylon, and in turn, can their meaning be transferred to St Mark? Or does St Mark’s representation align purely with the Jewish symbolism of a lion? Are the Jewish representations of lions completely different to that of Ancient Greek, Babylonia, and Egypt? I’m always cautious about over generalising the meanings of symbols (as indicated in this blog) but at the same time the morphing of symbols from one culture into another is fascinating to contemplate. I will continue to ponder …
* A side interest of mine is to compare Bible entries to see how much they differ from each other, in the case of Genesis 49:9 there are many differences with can completely alter how the passage is interpreted. Below are three examples; the first includes a reference to a lioness and well as a lion and proposes the simile as a question, the second emphasises killing, and the third has no reference to Judah.
New International Version – “You are a lion’s cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness–who dares to rouse him?”
Good News Translation – “Judah is like a lion, Killing his victim and returning to his den, Stretching out and lying down. No one dares disturb him.”
Contemporary English Version – “My son, you are a lion ready to eat your victim! You are terribly fierce; no one will bother you.”
Barnard, L. W. (1964). St. Mark and Alexandria. The Harvard Theological Review, 57(2), 145–150. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1508784
Carolina Sparavigna, A. (2013). Robert Grosseteste and the Four Elements. International Journal of Sciences, 1(12), 42–45. https://doi.org/10.18483/ijsci.362
Roberts, C. H. (1949). The Christian Book and The Greek Papyri. The Journal of Theological Studies, 50(199/200), 155–168. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23954151
Russell, J. R. (1997). The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 4(4), 357–379. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753198
Werner, M. (1969). The Four Evangelist Symbols Page in the Book of Durrow. Gesta, 8(1), 3–17. https://doi.org/10.2307/766670