The theme of the triumph of Christ is connected to the theme of the four creatures. On 8 Hatur the Coptic SYNAXARION commemorates the Four Bodiless Beasts that bear the throne of God. It includes references to the four six-winged creatures of Revelation 4 (a lion, a calf, a man, and a flying eagle), to the six-winged seraphim of Isaiah 6, and to the four four-headed cherubim, each with four wings, of Ezekiel 1. The Synaxarion concludes with the remark that there are also churches dedicated to them.
From the juxtaposition of these three scriptural texts, it appears that the distinction among the four creatures of Revelation, the seraphim, and the cherubim is extremely vague, although we know of representations of six-winged seraphim at Isna and of four- headed and four-winged cherubim at Abu Maqar; these were quite definitely regarded as belonging to the class of angels, the bodiless beings. In magic each of them has a name, which is also found in a related form in Nubian iconography (see below).
Because the four creatures are the bearers of God’s throne (or throne-chariot, shown with wheels, which was called in ancient texts the “chariot of the cherubim”), they figure in compositions portraying Christ in majesty, in apselike niches of cells in Bawit and Saqqara (c. A.D. 700) and in apses in medieval churches. Above left is the man, below left the lion, below right the calf, and above right the eagle—in the order given in Ezekiel.
The four creatures also occur in compositions known from medieval Nubia, where they surround the half-figure of Christ, sometimes even in combination with the cross (van Moorsel, 1966, pp. 297-316). It is in this last form, too, that the Nubian version of the magic names of the four creatures has come down. Both Nubian forms, moreover, occur other than in apses. Presumably it can be concluded that there, too, the intention was to portray Christ enthroned.
Two striking variants are found in tenth-century Nubia in the church in Sonqi Tino (Donadoni 1970, pp. 209-216; van der Helm, 1985, pp. 26-27) and in about 1232-1233 in the monastery of Saint Antony (Leroy, 1975, pl. 10). In both cases the four creatures are shown upright. The threefold holy that Isaiah, Revelation, and the liturgy attribute to them is included, in several cases, as an inscription in the composition itself (as in Saint Antony), while in Bawit cells 6 and 17 it is even written on the open codex that Christ holds in his hand (van der Meer, 1938, p. 260).
With regard to the role of the four creatures in Coptic angelology, a homily of Pseudo- Chrysostom (eleventh-century manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York; tenth-century fragment from Qasr Ibrim in Cambridge, England) provides further information. When God condemned Lucifer, one of the four cast him down to earth, one divested him of his panoply, the third bound him, and the fourth cast him into the lake of fire. They then clothed Michael in Lucifer’s panoply.
The question as to whether in the Nile Valley the four living creatures also had an allegorical meaning connecting them—for example, with the Evangelists—has not yet been resolved, although such an allegorical meaning has not been proved (de Grooth and van Moorsel, 1977-1978, pp. 233-41). Further research into the position of the four creatures in Coptic religious belief is desirable.
- Donadini, S. “Les Fouilles a l’église de Sonqi Tino,” pp. 209-216. In Kunst und Geschichte Nubiens in christlicher Zeit, ed. E. Dinkler. Recklinghausen, 1970.
- Grooth, M. de, and P. van Moorsel. “The Lion, the Calf, the Man and the Eagle in Early Christian and Coptic Art.” Bulletin Antieke Beschaving 52-53 (1977-1978):233-41.
- Helm, M. van der. “Some Iconographical Remarks on St. Michael in Sonqi Tino.” Nubian Letters 4 (February 1985):26-27.
- Leroy, J. Les Peintures des couvents du désert d’Esna. Cairo, 1975. Meer, F. van der. Maiestas Domini. Vatican City, 1938.
- Moorsel, P. van. “Une Théophanie nubienne.” Revista di Archeologie Cristiana 42 (1966):297-316.
- Müller, C. Detlev G. Die Engellehre der koptischen Kirche. Wiesbaden, 1959.
- Nilgen, U. “Evangelistensymbole.” In Reallexikon zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte, ed. Otto Schmitt. Stuttgart, 1937.
- . “Evangelisten.” In Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, Vol. 1. Vienna, 1967-.
PAUL VAN MOORSEL