Iconography: The Images of the Four Evangelists in the Shrine of Saint Nicholas


By His Grace Bishop Joachim of Amissos, PhD
Bishop Joachim of Amissos is an internationally recognized expert in Byzantine Iconography and is the Director of the Archbishop Iakovos Library at Hellenic College/Holy

As noted in several previous issues of this Newsletter, after the period of Iconoclasm (ending in 843), Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture emerged most characteristically as a centralized plan surmounted by a prominent dome. This form of architectural plan readily serves to reflect the hierarchical system of the Orthodox Faith and its visual expression, whereby the dome, the highest point within the church structure, became associated with Heaven and thereby was reserved for the depiction of the holiest figure, Christ Himself. 

Immediately beneath the image of Christ the Pantokrator (the Ruler of All), one usually finds images of the Lord’s ministering servants who participated in the revelation of God’s plan of salvation: the Prophets, with their preparatory messages and prefigurations of the Incarnation (figures placed either between the radiating ribs of the dome-as in the Shrine of Saint Nicholas-or on the upright walls of the drum of the dome), and beneath them, descending towards the faithful, the images of the four Evangelists, the authors of the four Gospels of the New Testament, who provided the written testimony of the fulfillment of the promise of the Lord’s coming among His people, as told by their Old Testament predecessors.

In a centrally planned, domed church, the four Evangelists are customarily placed within the architectural features known as the pendentives. The pendentives are the four, spherical, triangular spaces beneath the circular dome that descend over the rectangular space of the nave below. They are the architectural elements that create the transition from the circular area above and the square or rectangular plan of the nave below. They are the structural means of joining a circle to a square.

The depictions of the Evangelists as seen in the images of the Saint Nicholas Shrine conform to their centuries-long established portrait types: the older, gray-haired Matthew and John and the younger, dark-haired Mark and Luke. Here, as most often, they are shown seated before a desk and lectern with the objects and implements required for writing their texts, deeply engaged with their sacred compositions. They are depicted thusly, in the classical tradition of the ancient philosophers and authors of the Graeco-Roman period, as a visual means of conveying authority and respect for their written work. This is especially true for the figure of Saint John, who is shown with his head turned, gazing upward toward the rays of divine inspiration emanating from the arc of Heaven.

Each Evangelist is shown with the opening lines of his respective Gospels texts:

Saint John: ΕΝ ΑΡΧΗ ΗΝ Ο ΛΟΓΟC Κ(ΑΙ) Ο ΛΟΓΟC ΗΝ ΠΡΟC ΤΟΝ Θ(ΕΟ)Ν Κ(ΑΙ) Ο Θ(ΕΟ)C ΗΝ Ο ΛΟΓΟC ΟΥΤΟC...(In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, He…) (John 1:1-2)

Saint Matthew: ΒΙΒΛΟC ΓΕΝΕCΕΩC ΙΗCΟΥ Χ(ΡΙCΤ)ΟΥ ΥΙΟΥ ΔΑ(ΥΙ)Δ ΥΙΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ ΕΓΕΝΝ(ΗCΕΝ)...(The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begot…) (Matthew:1-2)

Saint Luke: ΕΠΕΙΔΗΠΕΡ ΠΟΛΛΟΙ ΕΠΕΧ(ΕΙΡΗCΑΝ)....(Inasmuch as many have undertaken…) (Luke 1:1)

Saint Mark: ΑΡΧΗ ΤΟΥ ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙ(ΟΥ) ΙΗCΟΥ ΧΡΗCΤΟΥ...(The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ…) (Mark 1:1)

The placement of the four Evangelists within the sacred space of the church is one of great significance. Above them are their predecessors-the Old Testament Prophets who prepared the way for the coming Incarnation of the pre-eternal Lord, seen above in the apex of the dome. When standing within the nave and facing the sanctuary, the faithful will observe that the four Evangelists are placed in order of the readings of the liturgical year, that is, looking and turning clockwise, Saint John, Saint Matthew, Saint Luke, and Saint Mark. Below the four Evangelists are found the scenes of the Christological cycle, that is, depictions of the saving events from the life of Christ as witnessed by the authors of the Holy Gospels. Their sacred, inspired texts and their visual counterparts in the Christological scenes, both icons-visual and written, proclaim the reality of the Incarnation and the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation for His creation. Participation in this path of salvation is through the liturgical celebrations of the Holy Sacraments that take place beneath both these texts and images.