The Ox as a Symbol of St luke

October 10th 2020

Symbol of St Luke, (f.124v) The Book of Durrow, c.650 – c.700, Trinity College Dublin.  You can view this folio page in higher resolution at

The Feast of St Luke falls next Sunday.   In Christian art each of the evangelists has a particular symbol and St Luke’s is an ox (or a calf).  This symbolism has it origins in two biblical texts.  In Ezekiel 1:4-11 the prophet has a vision of four living creatures which are in human form, but with wings. Their faces have four aspects, a man on the front, a lion on the right, an ox on the left, and an eagle on the back.  This symbolism appears also the Book of Revelation where four winged creatures surround Christ on his throne (Revelation 4:6-8).  The first creature is like a lion.  The second is like an ox.  The third has the face of a man.  The fourth is like a flying eagle. St Irenaeus (130 -202 AD) interpreted these texts as representing the individual evangelists. St Matthew was represented by a man, St Mark by a eagle, St Luke by an ox and St John by a lion.  Later St Jerome (c.347 -420 AD) assigned the ox to St Luke and the man to St Matthew, but he differed from St Irenaeus in giving the the lion to St Mark and the eagle to St John.  It is St Jerome’s symbolic scheme which has prevailed in later manuscripts and in Western Art.  The Book of Durrow is unusual in that it follows the earlier symbolic scheme of St Irenaeus and not that of St Jerome. 

The choice of the ox for Luke is thought to relate to the sacrifices offered in the Temple.  St Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in the Temple.  Only St Luke has the child Jesus presented in the Temple and later found there among the doctors. It may be that the symbolism of the ox  draws on the link between the Temple sacrifices, Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice on the cross and the presence of Jesus in the Temple in such Lucan scenes.   The page shown above opens the Gospel of Luke in the Book of Durrow.  It is almost as if the animal is moving to the right where the gospel text will begin.  Although very simple and naturalistic, this ox is given a whole page, which also has a highly decorated border, so that we are left in no doubt about its importance.  Is this St Luke shown in symbolic form and about to begin telling his story?  The pattern of red dots can be found in a very similar ox in Echternach Gospels (Lindisfarne (?) c.690).  It is thought that both may draw on Greek and Roman metal work which used stippling to suggest fur.   What makes the Book of Durrow so precious is not so much the quality of the artistic work, but the fact that it is the oldest such manuscript to have survived.  The symbols of the Evangelists and in particular  this one of St Luke, remind us of how in each generation the word of God is embraced and treasured in all its richness and colour.  

The Ox as a Symbol of St luke

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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