Icons of the Apostles and Evangelists

Icons of the Apostles and Evangelists are almost always placed in Eastern Rite churches because of the enormously important role these saints played in building the Church on earth. A Ukrainian church without any icons dedicated to Apostles or Evangelists is pretty rare.

The left side of the Apostles tier of the iconostas of Holy Ascension Ukrainian Orthodox Church, south of Arran, SK

The Apostles

The Apostles were the 12 disciples Christ chose to follow Him and assist Him in His ministry. While Christ had a great many disciples, these 12 are by far the most significant. Some may be a bit confused by the list of names of Apostles, not the least because some of them went by more than one name. Additionally there were two Apostles called Simon, two called James, and two called Judas.  The Gospels identify them as follows:

1.  Peter, who was first called Simon, and who was a fisherman.
2.  James, a fisherman and who was a son of Zebedee.
3.  John, also a fisherman and a son of Zebedee, likely the youngest of the 12.
4.  Andrew, the brother of Simon/Peter, also a fisherman, an earlier disciple of John the Baptist, and who is known as “the first called”.
5.  Philip of Bethsaida.
6.  Bartholomew, the son of Talemai and also known as Nathaniel.
7.  Matthew, who was a former tax collector.
8.  Thomas, who was also known as “the twin”.
9.  James, also known as "James the Less" because he was small in stature while James, son of Zebedee must have been a larger man.
10.  Thaddeus, also known as Jude — in John 14:22 the Evangelist calls him “Judas (not Judas Iscariot)”.
11.  Simon Zealot, also known as Simon the Cananean.
12.  Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ, who is seldom seen in any type of religious art, accept for such depictions as the Mystical Supper or the betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane where his noted presence is historical and not saintly.

The left side of the Apostles tier of the iconostas of
St. Mary’s Bukovynian Orthodox Church, Oshawa, ON

We know that the 12 Apostles were particularly dear to Christ because He told them, "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28)

Shortly after Christ’s Resurrection, the remaining Apostles sought to replace Judas Iscariot (now dead) and they cast lots electing Matthias to replace Judas. Therefore, it is not incorrect to count St. Matthias as one of the twelve Apostles. In St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ottawa, Ontario, iconographer Lubomyr Medvid' placed pictures of the Apostles in the lower part of the interior of the central dome. While this is a fairly traditional placement for images of the Apostles, this instance has the unusual inclusion of St. Matthias.

Icons of the Apostles – St. John the Baptist
Ukrainian Catholic Church, Ottawa, ON

However, Paul of Tarsus (formerly known as Saul) is more frequently displayed as one of the twelve Apostles in Ukrainian iconography because Christ, Himself, called Paul to be an Apostle on the road to Damascus. Indeed, St. Paul traditionally holds a place of distinction in the Church because of the great works he accomplished after his miraculous conversion.

Therefore, in the Apostle tier of an iconostas, St. Paul often is given prominence along with St. Peter. In expanded icons of the Deisis, Sts. Peter and Paul are also fairly prominent, coming after the Virgin, the Forerunner, and the Archangels. In both Ukraine and Canada there are a vast number of churches dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul.

Icon of Sts. Peter and Paul from Holy Resurrection
Ukrainian Catholic Church, Dauphin, MB

The Evangelists

The Evangelists were the four men who wrote the Gospels. Two of them (Matthew and John) were among the original 12 Apostles while the others (Mark and Luke) were gentiles who were prominent assistants to the Apostles during the earliest days of the church. One should never underestimate the Evangelists’ role in delivering the good news of the Gospels and they have a significant place in the iconography of Ukrainian churches.

Traditionally, we often see icons of the four Evangelists placed in the pendentives of the central dome of a church. It is not difficult to see beautiful symbolism in the four authors of the Gospels supporting the dome in which we so often see the image of Christ Pantocrator. It is rather like the gospels forming the cornerstones of the Church.

The Evangelist Matthew from the pendentive of
Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, Saskatoon, SK

We also frequently find icons of the Evangelists on the Royal Doors of the iconostas. As discussed in the web page “The Theology and Symbolism of Eastern Rite Church Architecture”, the sanctuary represents the Kingdom of Heaven and the Royal Doors are the gateway to paradise. Since the Evangelists announced the Kingdom of God in their Gospels they are placed here as reminder of the their good news.

Detail of the Evangelists on the iconostas of
St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Edmonton, AB

Each of the four Evangelists is associated with an iconographic symbol that is often depicted along with them in their images. In some decorative instances these symbols may be used alone to represent the Gospels or the men who wrote them. The symbols are all winged creatures and they are as follows:

  1. An angelic looking young man represents St. Matthew’s Gospel.
  2. A lion represents St. Mark’s Gospel.
  3. An ox or bull represents St. Luke’s Gospel.
  4. An eagle represents St. John’s Gospel.
A winged ox appears below the icon of St. Luke on a
pendentive in St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, Oshawa, ON

These four symbols associated with the Gospels are very ancient and the prophet Ezekiel described them almost six hundred years before the birth of Christ. St. John the Apostle also described these four beings in Chapter 4 of the Book of Revelation.

One often finds images of the Evangelists on the Book of Gospels used in our liturgies. There is a wide variety in the type of embellishment that might be employed on the cover of the Gospels and some can be very ornate. If there are not pictures of the Evangelists on the cover then there usually are at least images of their iconographic symbols.

The Book of Gospels with images of the Evangelists and Christ –
St. Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church, south of Rama, SK