Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Tetramorph

Tetramorph (from Greek tetra, four and morph, shape) is a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements. The Christian tetramorph is a good example of how syncreticism occurs in religious symbolism.

Archaeological evidence exists showing that early man divided the four quarters of the horizon, or space, later a place of sacrifice , such as a temple , and attributed characteristics and spiritual qualities to each quarter. Alternatively the composite elements were carved into mythic creatures such as the Egyptian, Greek and Babylonian Sphinxes of antiquity depicting bull-like bodies with birds-wings, lionís paws and human faces. Throughout world-mythologies descriptions of such composite creatures or two or three elements plus a human factor can be found.

The most-developed of all foursome or fournesses in religious symbolism is the Christian tetramorph of the four evangelists. It originated from the Jewish prophet Ezekiel who whilst in exile in Babylonia circa 550 BCE used the symbolism of Babylonian astrology for his own prophetic purposes. Ezekiel describes his vision in which the likeness of four living creatures came out of the midst of the fire ,thus-

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. Ezekiel 1 verse 10.

Ezekielís vision is based upon the astrology of the ancient Babylonians in which the constellations of the Zodiac (Greek for circle of animals) signs of Aquarius ( the man/angel) Leo the Lion, Taurus the Bull and Scorpio the Eagle are represented. Known astrologically as the Fixed Cross (with the substitution of the scorpion, a creature little known outside the Mediterranean basin was early on replaced by the winged eagle).

These four animal figures are also depicted in the early Christian evangelist Saint Johnís book of the Apocalypse, the last book of the New Testament , the book of Revelation in which the events of the end times are revealed. Saint John alludes to Ezekielís vision thus-

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. Revelation 4 verse 7.

Christian iconography in the form of illuminated manuscripts developed the tetramorph in art-work quite early. Examples of the four Evangelists in the form of a tetramorph can be found from the 6th CE.

In theology Saint Jerome attributed Christian virtues to each of the four animals of the Christian tetramorph. The four evangelists of the Gospels being invariably depicted as Saint Matthew represented by a winged man, Saint Luke by an Ox, Saint Mark by a Lion and John the Evangelist by the Eagle. At the centre of many Christian tetramorphs is the Pantokrater (from Greek pan-all, krater - ruler) Jesus the Christ .

Like the Cross, the Tetramorph symbolises a highly-complex system of relationships and elements which find their origin in the centre . Thus the tetramorph alludes to the 5 th element or quintessence, the element beyond the visible four natural elements of earth,air, water, and fire, to the invisible ether of the alchemists.

Tetramorphs exist throughout world-cultures. A mundane object such as a Weather-vane in its characteristation of the four quarters of the wind can be said to be said to be tetramorphic . The pastime dice-game of Ludo and playing-card game of contract Bridge exhibit tetramorphic qualities, as does the string quartet in which four voice engage in dialogue within the confines of the four movement sonata structure.

The tetramorph and its psychological equivalent, the Quaternity is explored in great depth by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in his writings.