A tetramorph is a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements, or the combination of four disparate elements in one unit. The term is derived from the Greek tetra, meaning four, and morph, shape.
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, lion’s paws and human faces. Such composite creatures are found in many mythologies.
The most developed tetramorph in Christian symbolism is that of the four evangelists, or their symbolic creatures, the Four Living Creatures.
“In Christian symbolism, the symbolic associations of the four Evangelists (as archers defending truth and the order of Christ—the ‘Centre’) are: Matthew, the winged man; Mark, the lion; Luke, the ox; John, the eagle.
This originated from the Biblical book of the Jewish prophet Ezekiel, who while in exile in Babylonia circa 580 BCE 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 1:10.
These four animal figures are also depicted in the St. John’s Apocalypse, the last book of the New Testament, where they surround the throne of Christ, the setting most usually seen in Christian art. John alludes to Ezekiel’s 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 4:7.
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. including notably in the Book of Kells.
In theology, Saint Jerome attributed Christian virtues to each of the four animals of the Christian tetramorph. Matthew is represented by a winged man; Luke by an ox; Mark by a Lion; and John by an eagle. At the center of most Christian tetramorphs is the Pantokrator (from Greek pan-all, krater – ruler) Jesus the Christ, following the Book of Revelation.
Above is Raphael’s Vision of Ezekiel from 1518, with the four creatures grouped around Jesus-as God (a design also known as a Tetramorph), along with a couple of cherubs.
The traditional iconography of the Tarot Major Acana The World (the final Major at number twenty-one) depicts a girl dancing or leaping through a wreath, and at each corner is one of the evangelical symbols. More modern decks that try to distance the deck from Christian iconography may replace the tetramorph with elemental symbols, or other animals.
Astrologically, the Four Living Creatures represent the four fixed signs of the Zodiac. Aquarius as the winged man, Taurus as the ox/bull, Leo as lion and Scorpio as the eagle. The Fixed Signs represnt the limits of the physical universe. Christ at the center as the pantokrator is the ruler.