In Christian tradition, the Four Evangelists are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authors attributed with the creation of the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament that bear the following titles: Gospel according to Matthew; Gospel according to Mark; Gospel according to Luke and Gospel according to John.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels, because they include many of the same stories, often in the same sequence. While the periods to which the gospels are usually dated suggest otherwise, convention traditionally holds that the authors were two of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, John and Matthew, as well as two "apostolic men," Mark and Luke:
In iconography, the evangelists often appear in Evangelist portraits derived from classical tradition, and are also frequently represented by the symbols which originate from the four "living creatures" that draw the throne-chariot of God, the Merkabah, in the vision in the Book of Ezekiel (Chapter 1) reflected in the Book of Revelation (4.6-9ff), though neither source links the creatures to the Evangelists. Images normally, but not invariably, appear with wings like angels.
The meanings accruing to the symbols grew over centuries, with an early formulation by Jerome, and were fully expressed by Rabanus Maurus, who set out three layers of meaning for the beasts, as representing firstly the Evangelists, secondly the nature of Christ, and thirdly the virtues required of a Christian for salvation: These animals may[original research?] have originally been seen as representing the highest forms of the various types of animals, i.e., man, the king of creation as the image of the creator; the lion as the king of beasts of prey (meat-eating); the ox as the king of domesticated animals (grass-eating) and the eagle as the king of the birds.
Each of the symbols is depicted with wings, following the biblical sources first in Ezekiel 1-2, and in Revelation. The symbols are shown with, or in place of, the Evangelists in early medieval Gospel Books, and are the usual accompaniment to Christ in Majesty when portrayed during the same period, reflecting the vision in Revelation. They were presented as one of the most common motifs found on church portals and apses, as well as many other locations.
When surrounding Christ, the figure of the man usually appears at top left - above Christ's right hand, with the lion above Christ's left arm. Underneath the man is the ox and underneath the lion is the eagle. This both reflects the medieval idea of the order of "nobility" of nature of the beasts (man, lion, ox, eagle) and the text of Ezekiel 1.10. From the thirteenth century their use began to decline, as a new conception of Christ in Majesty, showing the wounds of the Passion, came into use. Sometimes in Evangelist portraits they appear to dictate to the writing evangelist.
Matthew is often cited as the "first Gospel account," not only owing to its place in the canon, but also in view of the patristic witness to this effect. Most biblical scholars however, see the gospel account of Mark as having been written first (see Markan priority) and John's gospel account as having been written last.
It has become customary to speak of "the Gospel of Matthew" ... "the Gospel of John", not least because it is shorter and rolls much more smoothly off the tongue; but it is worth noting that the ancient titles do not use the genitive of possession, but the preposition "according to", signifying that each evangelist sets forth the one "Gospel of God" according to his own capacity, but not in the sense of creating his own story.