The vision of Ezekiel and the Tetramorphs of the Four Gospels
Many present-day readers of the New Testament, particularly those from Protestant traditions, may be unaware of the very ancient association of the four New Testament gospel books with four specific figures: that of a winged Man, that of a winged Lion, that of a winged Bull or Ox, and that of an Eagle (winged, of course).
Robert Taylor (1784 - 1844), an ordained minister in England in the early 1800s, was sentenced to three years behind bars and was defrocked for the offense of giving "astronomico-theological lectures" in which he explained the celestial foundations of the imagery and events described in the scriptures of the Bible -- what today is often referred to as "astrotheology."
Taylor argues that the eventual removal of these images from the pages of printed Bibles was done in order to prevent readers from figuring out something very important, saying at one point:
Not till the days of the interference of our Protestant and Dissentarian preachers in the publication and circulation of Bibles and Testaments, was an authorized edition of the four gospels ever put forth, without presenting an equally authorized representation of the four evangelists with the four royal beasts by which they are respectively distinguished, -- the lion, for Matthew; the angel, for Mark; the bull, for Luke; and the eagle, for John. But the Protestant priests, the most deceitful of all deceivers of the people, beginning to fear that the people might acquire wit enough to ask for the meaning of those four royal beasts, have swindled away the old title-page, and substituted one with only two royal beasts in it: "The lion and the unicorn, a-fighting for the crown." Devil's Pulpit (1857), 326.
In other words, Taylor (who at times displays a rather slashing sarcastic wit) is saying that out of fear that the people would begin to ask questions, the old title pages in English Bibles which had in the past contained the images of the Four Evangelists with their four respective creatures were now replaced with a new title page that removed those four creatures and instead had an image of the royal arms which depict the heraldic lion of England and the heraldic unicorn of Scotland.
What could Taylor mean, and why would he indicate that religious leaders of the literalistic Christian traditions (with whom he was obviously none too happy, since they had had him locked up for teaching a connection between the scriptures and the stars) might have wanted to begin to phase the images out of the Bibles in order to avoid having the people start inquiring as to the meaning of them?
In order to answer that question, we will have to proceed systematically, along a fascinating trail . . .
For centuries, these four creatures were depicted in conjunction with the four gospel texts of the Gospel According to Matthew, the Gospel According to Mark, the Gospel According to Luke, and the Gospel According to John.
Below, for instance, is the decorative illustration that marks the beginning of the New Testament in the 1599 Geneva Bible -- one of the very first translations of the scriptures into the English language (see discussion here regarding the 1536 execution of William Tyndale and the unnatural laws making it illegal to possess the scriptures in translation for many centuries). Obviously, this Protestant text was published before Taylor says that the Protestant religious leaders began to decide it would be best to replace such title pages with title pages that did not show the four special creatures:
It contains a wealth of imagery, including symbolic images of the twelve tribes of Israel arranged along the left border as we look at it on the page, accompanied by illustrations representing the twelve disciples of the New Testament arranged along the right border as we look at it on the page, and then within the rectangle of the inner portion we see a symbolic representation of each of the Four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in that order if we begin in the upper left corner as we look at it on the page and proceed left to right along the top and then left to right along the bottom), with an image of the Lamb bearing a Cross in the center position along the lower row, in between the images of Luke and John.
Because the image is not terrifically high-resolution in the "big picture" above, below is a zoom-in on the images of each of the Four Evangelists from this page, each of whom can be seen to be accompanied by one of the four special figures mentioned above: the winged Man with Matthew, the Lion with Mark, the Ox with Luke, and the Eagle with John.
above: Matthew is depicted writing the text of the Gospel According to Matthew, while the winged Man looks on. From the Geneva Bible of 1599.
above: Mark is depicted writing the text of the Gospel According to Mark, while a Lion crouches in front of his desk or writing surface. From the Geneva Bible of 1599.
above: Luke is depicted writing the text of the Gospel According to Luke, while an Ox appears to be curled up, perhaps in a sleeping posture, by his side (if you are having trouble making out the Ox, his "face" is towards the viewer, and you can see his two horns going up on either side of his "face" and his two ears sticking out pretty much horizontally, just below his two horns). From the Geneva Bible of 1599.
above: John is depicted writing the text of the Gospel According to John, while an Eagle is positioned at his left elbow (on the right side of John as we look at the image). From the Geneva Bible of 1599.
The association of the Four Evangelists with these four specific creatures in sacred art is, in fact, extremely widespread, particularly in art from past centuries, and can be seen depicted in sculptures inside of (or even on top of) churches and cathedrals, in stained glass windows, and in other forms of art. Below is an example of another common use of this theme, around the four quadrants created in what is sometimes called a "groined ceiling" (a specific type of vaulted ceiling):
In the image above, which was selected because it has a label for each of the four creatures (many times this imagery is unlabeled), we can clearly see the winged Man in the right-hand quadrant as we look at the image, holding a scroll which refers to Matthew (it says "St. Mathaus"), and then if we proceed counter-clockwise we see the Lion of Mark (the scroll reads "St. Marcus"), the Eagle of John (the scroll reads "St Johannes"), and the Ox of Luke (the scroll, somewhat damaged, reads "St. Lucas").
While the associations illustrated above have become solidified in Christian tradition, there is actually room for debate as to which Evangelist corresponds to which specific creature. The correspondences as usually depicted (and as shown in the illustrations above) can be traced back to Jerome (AD 327 - AD 420), in his fourteen-book commentary on the scroll of the Prophet Ezekiel (as we will see, these four specific creatures come from a very important passage in the first chapter of Ezekiel, in which we read the account of the vision of Ezekiel). However, Jerome's younger contemporary Augustine (AD 354 - AD 430) assigned the correspondences slightly differently: he reversed the assignments for Matthew and Mark, giving the Lion to Matthew and the Man to Mark.
However, writing about two hundred years before either Jerome or Augustine, the early literalist Christian bishop Irenaeus (c. AD 130 - AD 202), was probably the first known writer to connect these four creatures from the vision of Ezekiel to the Four Evangelists. In his Adversus Haereses ("Against Heresies"), he explicitly lays out this connection, and then argues for the assignment of each of the four creatures. Once again, there are two places in which his assignments are the same as those of Jerome, and two places in which his assignments are reversed, but unlike Augustine the difference is with Mark and John. Irenaeus assigns Mark the Eagle and John the Lion.
If you're getting confused, there is a "matrix" at the bottom of this post to show the different correspondences; the important point to take from this is that there is widespread agreement from the early "church fathers" of literalist Christianity that the Four Evangelists each correspond to one of the four creatures, but there is clear disagreement as to which corresponds to whom.
The text in which Irenaeus argues for the connection of these creatures from Ezekiel's vision to the four New Testament gospels is found in Book 3 of his Against Heresies, in Chapter 11 and Paragraph 8. You can read a translation for yourself online in various places -- here is a link to one example. You will find the passage 3.11.8 beginning on page 852 of that online version. Here is what Irenaeus says (added "clarifications" are in brackets, and come from that translation linked above, not necessarily from Irenaeus):
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the "pillar and ground" of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, "Thou that sittest between the cherubim, shine forth." For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says, "The first living creature was like a lion," symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but the "third had, as it were, the face as of a man," -- an evident description of His advent as a human being; "the fourth was like a flying eagle," pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated.
From this point, Irenaeus goes on to give his reasons for assigning the Lion to John, the Ox to Luke, the Man to Matthew, and the Eagle to Mark.
Although he assumes that the reader knows where he is getting these quotations describing "the cherubim," he does not explicitly state in the passage quoted that they come from the first chapter of Ezekiel, but that is where they do in fact come from. There, in the first chapter, we read:
1 Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.
2 In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin's captivity,
3 The word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was there upon him.
4 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
5 Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
6 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
7 And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.
8 And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.
9 Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.
10 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.
11 Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.
12 And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.
13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.
14 And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.
15 Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.
16 The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
17 When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.
18 And as for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four [note: a margin note from the actual King James Version translation of this text states that the second mention of the word "rings" in this verse might be alternately translated as "strakes," which in modern usage is often applied to parts of an aircraft, but at the time of this translation referred to the curved segments that were joined together to form a wooden "strake wheel," as shown in the illustrations on this page about old wheels].
19 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.
The vision of Ezekiel continues on, and is extremely important, but at this point we have all the clues needed to begin to decipher what could be going on, and why Irenaeus in the passage cited above from his text Against Heresies declared that it is simply "not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are," and why he connected each of the four to one of the likenesses of the living creatures described here in the vision of Ezekiel.
This may, in fact, be one of the most important passages in all of scripture. Why? What could it mean?
It has been famously seized upon in modern times as a possible vision of extraterrestrial craft by Ezekiel, who (it is argued) was trying to do his best to describe the advanced flying ships that he witnessed, as "wheels within wheels" with an "appearance of a flash of lightning" or "like burning coals" or "lamps," described as "going up and down," and being "so high that they were dreadful." Of course, the vision of these fantastic four "living creatures," with their wings and their hands and their four faces, has been interpreted by those in this camp as being Ezekiel's best effort to describe the alien beings who might have been piloting these amazing ships.
Is this why, in Robert Taylor's opinion, the leaders of the literalistic Christian churches (the ones who were so upset with Taylor for teaching astrotheology) wanted to remove the images of the four living creatures from the title-pages of the New Testaments? Did Taylor realize that the vision of Ezekiel was a vision of UFOs, and did he believe that in order to keep the people from finding it out, the illustrations began to be expurgated from the printed versions of the scriptures during the Protestant times, when more and more people were actually looking at the Bible for themselves?
Nope. That's not what he thought.
Taylor argues that the real identity of these four living creatures is indicated by Irenaeus himself, in the beginning of the passage cited above. Taylor says:
The reasoning, then, of the Christian father, Irenaeus, that there were four gospels, because there were four seasons of the year, after all the contempt which those who have invented the absurd conceit of a supposed historical basis of these divine poems would cast on it, is indeed the true and real account of the matter. Astronomico-Theological Lectures (1857), 269 - 270.
That sentence is a bit of a mouthful, so let's rearrange it to make it easier to see what Taylor is saying:
The reasoning, then, of the Christian father Irenaeus, is indeed the true and real account of the matter. There were four gospels because there were four seasons of the year -- despite all the contempt that those who have invented the literalist approach will cast upon this argument. The literalist approach creates the "absurd conceit" (the "ridiculous fantasy or fabrication") that all these divine poems ("metaphors, allegories, language full of imagery") actually represent historical events -- and this approach misses their meaning altogether [this is my own free rearrangement of Taylor's quotation from pages 269-270, with a little paraphrase thrown in and some explanatory "translation" in quotation marks].
Taylor argues that the four seasons to which Irenaeus refers in conjunction with the four gospels are represented in the four accompanying symbols, which stand for four zodiac constellations:
- the Lion obviously represents Leo,
- the Ox of course corresponds to the Bull of Taurus,
- the Man is the only male human figure among the zodiac twelve: Aquarius
- the Eagle is located directly above the Scorpion in the night sky, and hence is another way of referring to Scorpio.
Each of these corresponds to a season, Taylor explains: the Lion to summer, and Aquarius to winter, with the Bull corresponding to spring and the Scorpion to the autumn or fall.
We could go even further and note that which Taylor does not explicitly state (although he does hint on page v of the introduction to Devil's Pulpit), which is that the selection of these four specific stations on the zodiac wheel are by no means random: they represent the zodiac constellations which governed the four critical points of the annual cycle during the Age of Taurus, when the spring equinox sunrise took place in Taurus, the summer solstice in Leo, the fall equinox in Scorpio, and the winter solstice in Aquarius.
These four zodiac constellations no longer govern those four critical points of the year: the ages-long process of precession (sometimes called "the precession of the equinoxes") has moved the background stars twice since then, and going on a third time. Much of ancient myth corresponds to the zodiac as it would have been in the Age of Aries, which came after the Age of Taurus, which is depicted in the diagram below (which should be quite familiar by now to readers of this blog or the book The Undying Stars):
In the above diagram, the mighty "cross" of the year is depicted, as it was in the Age of Aries, when the Spring Equinox took place at the junction between Pisces and Aries, at the left side of the wheel in the "9 o'clock" position (the progress on the above layout is clockwise: the sun will rise in each sign shown for about one month, before moving to the next sign in a clockwise direction).
The arrival of Aries, then, signified the arrival of spring equinox, and thus this entire Age was designate the Age of Aries. As the year progressed, the sun would climb higher and higher in the sky on the way to the summer solstice, which took place at the end of the sign of Gemini and the beginning of the sign of Cancer the Crab: thus, the wedge on the wheel belonging to Cancer is shaded in red.
The sun would then begin to decline back "down" towards the fall equinox, which took place right after the end of the month in which the sun rose in Virgo the Virgin, and entered the sign of Libra the Scales or the Balance (at the "3 o'clock" position at the right-hand side of the circle as you look at it on the page above).
From there, the sun's path would continue to get lower and lower in the sky -- and its rising points further and further south for observers in the northern hemisphere -- until the time of the winter solstice, which was then taking place in between the signs of Sagittarius the Archer and Capricorn the Goat. Thus, Capricorn is also shaded in red: the two red wedges of Cancer and Capricorn thus make up the "vertical bar" of the great "cross of the year," the vertical bar running from the winter solstice at the bottom of the year straight up to the summer solstice at the top of the year. You can see the importance of the Age of Aries in the fact that the two tropics are still designated by the signs that governed the beginning of the high-point and the low-point for the annual cycle during that Age: the Tropic of Cancer (northern hemisphere) and the Tropic of Capricorn (southern).
Similarly, the "horizontal bar" of the great cross of the year is indicated by the two signs shaded in black, which during the Age of Aries would have been Aries and Libra.
The motion of precession, which is discussed in this video that I made a few years back to try to illustrate the concept using a very clear and easy-to-grasp series of images, actually "delays" the background stars of the zodiac, causing the sun to rise in the preceding zodiac constellation after a long period of approximately 2,160 years. Hence, in the Age prior to the Age of Aries, the sun was rising in the constellation of Taurus on the spring equinox, instead of in Aries (Aries precedes Taurus, and so the motion of precession eventually delayed the background stars enough for the sun to rise in the constellation Aries on spring equinox instead of in Taurus).
Here is the same diagram shown above, but this time labeled for the great cross of the year in the Age of Taurus:
And now we begin to perceive the significance of the "four living creatures" of the vision of Ezekiel, and of the insistence of Irenaeus that the gospels themselves must also be four and only four in number, and correspond to the four living creatures of Ezekiel. For in the Age of Taurus, we can see that the spring equinox corresponds to the Bull, the summer solstice corresponds to the Lion, the fall equinox corresponds to Scorpio (which is located at the base of the shimmering path of the Milky Way, and contains flying upwards above Scorpio the constellation of Aquila the Eagle), and the winter solstice corresponds to Aquarius the Water-Bearer.
The correspondences are undeniable, and the significance of this fact is profound.
If Ezekiel's vision of the heavens corresponds to the zodiac wheel, and includes clear reference to the four zodiac constellations governing the stations of the two solstices and two equinoxes, then this is a very powerful piece of evidence supporting the argument that the ancient scriptures of the Bible consist of esoteric metaphors describing the motions of the heavens.
In fact, I believe that almost all ancient myth from around the world can be demonstrated to consist of just such esoteric metaphors describing the motions of the heavens, and outline the evidence for this conclusion in over fifty different examinations of specific myths and sacred stories that are linked on this page (the "Star Myth Index").
The fact that the stories of the Old and New Testaments are also built upon this exact same system actually unites them with the rest of the world's sacred traditions. It was the creators of the literalist approach who falsely divided the Biblical scriptures from the rest of the world's sacred traditions, and then set about opposing and attacking the rest of the world's traditions, which they had now set themselves apart from. Obviously, this separation stretches back to the time of Irenaeus, who was an important and powerful proponent of the literalist approach and a tireless enemy of those who did not subscribe to the literalistic historicizing approach.
Once we understand that the "four living creatures" described in the vision of Ezekiel correspond exactly to the four zodiac points of the great wheel of the year during the Age of Taurus, the rest of his vision begins to become clear. His vision does not describe UFOs, but rather the motions of the great wheels which turn in the sky as the zodiac with its colures (or hoops) that pass through and connect the solstices and the equinoxes -- an understanding of the mechanism of the heavens which is replicated in the familiar and beautiful armillary spheres, whose very name means "composed of rings."
Below is an image of an armillary sphere:
Like most armillary spheres, it represents the heavens as seen from earth, and consists of a ring that represents the celestial equator and a ring that represents the plane of the ecliptic: these two cross at the points of the equinoxes. It also consists of one hoop which passes through the equinox points and then through the north and south celestial poles -- this is called the "equinoctial colure" -- and one hoop which passes through the solstice points and then through the north and south celestial poles -- this is called the "solstitial colure."
Below, those points are labeled in case you aren't familiar with these concepts:
Now, as you can see, the armillary sphere is constructed with an "axle" that runs between the two points labeled "N. Celestial Pole" and "S. Celestial Pole," which means that the entire "sphere of rings" will turn around this central axle -- just as the sky as seen from an observer on earth appears to "turn" around a central hub at the north celestial pole (or the south celestial pole, if you are observing from the southern hemisphere). Then, altogether as if they were connected, the rings of the celestial equator and the ecliptic will turn, and athwart these will turn the two great "vertical hoops" of the sosltitial and equinoctial colures, carrying along with them the four important points of the two solstices and two equinoxes.
Let's go back and examine the vision of Ezekiel again, and you can see that this is exactly what the text is describing.
In verse 4: "behold, a whirlwind came out of the north." This can be understood as referring to the fact that the heavens appear to turn around the central point of the north celestial pole. This is elsewhere described in myth as a mighty whirlpool: the two images both refer to the same thing -- the circling of either air or water around a central point (the "vortex" of the whirlpool or whirlwind -- which is the north celestial pole, if you are in the northern hemisphere, as Ezekiel evidently is, since he says that this whirlwind "came out of the north").
In verse 4 as well: "a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it." I believe this almost certainly refers to the great cloud of the Milky Way galaxy, which crosses the heavens like one of the colures, basically along the line that divides Sagittarius and Scorpio and runs up to form the line between Taurus and Gemini.
In verse 5: "Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures." These four living creatures are the four points on the ecliptic hoop through which the solstitial and equinoctial colures pass: they are the images of the zodiac constellations at those four points.
In verse 9: "Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward." This can be understood as referring to the fact that the four creatures are all turned by the same force -- their "wings are joined one to another." The phrase about them "turning not" but always going "straight forward" may seem confusing, until you understand that the five visible planets go across the face of the heavens in a very different manner: they all go into what is called "retrograde motion" at some point (when the earth is "overtaking them"). This concept of retrograde motion in the visible planets is discussed here and here, and it is very important. But, the zodiac constellations represented by these four living creatures are not visible planets, and they will not undergo retrograde motion. They will always go "straight forward" across the sky, and they will never be seen "turning back."
In verse 13: "their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps." This and the other descriptions almost certainly refer to the fact that the constellations are composed of stars in the sky -- which are "like lamps" in the heavens, or burning coals.
In verse 15: "behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces." This refers to the fact that the four zodiac signs are born along by one wheel -- the ring of the ecliptic, labeled above on the armillary sphere. It is "by the earth" because it is very close to ring of the celestial equator.
In verse 16: "they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel." This refers to the fact that all four are actually part of the same ring, which turns as a "wheel in the middle of a wheel" as can plainly be seen by contemplating the motion of a turning armillary sphere such as the one depicted above.
In verse 18: "As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful, and their rings [or "strakes"] were full of eyes round about them four." This verse, which hitherto seemed so confusing, is now revealed as an apt description of what we have been discussing so far. They are "full of eyes" because they are full of stars (this explains how they had "eyes inside" as well, as described in other verses not quoted here). The rings that are "so high that they were dreadful" are probably the two colures, which run up to and through the celestial north pole and then down to the celestial south pole. The "strakes" are the segments of the wheel of the year -- in fact, it is a perfect metaphor for the segments of a zodiac wheel. Below is an image of an old wooden straked wheel:
And in verse 19: "and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up." This could refer to the motion of the constellations as they turn across the night sky, lifting up from the eastern horizon, crossing the vault of the heavens, and then going back down to sink into the western horizon. But, I actually believe it refers to the separation between the plane of the ecliptic and the celestial equator -- with the celestial equator being metaphorically referred to as "the earth" here. The fact that these two are "split apart" as they are means that throughout the year they create a sort of yawning motion like the opening and closing of the mouth of a great fish or something of that nature. You can see some animations of this motion in the link inside this previous post discussing this phenomenon.
From the above explication, it is I believe completely clear that the vision of Ezekiel refers to the celestial mechanics of the turning wheels of the heavens -- and does so with reference to the constellations that governed the "cross of the year" during the Age of Taurus. This is powerful confirmation of the theory that these ancient scriptures concern the action of these celestial forces -- and, as I have discussed at length in other blog posts and in the book The Undying Stars, they do so as part of an esoteric system of allegory designed to convey profound truths about the nature of the universe and of human existence in this incarnate life.
But, as we have seen from the preceding discussion, this allegorical description of the mighty machinery of the heavens is not confined to the vision of Ezekiel: one of the most important early proponents of the religion based on the New Testament scriptures has explicitly informed us that this description applies with equal force to the four gospels describing the life of Jesus. These four living creatures, who are sometimes referred to as "the tetramorphs" (which means "four-forms") or sometimes altogether as "the tetramorph," are specifically connected to the Four Evangelists and the telling of the story "according to" each of them.
As we have seen, there is some confusion even amongst the early "church fathers" as to which of the four creatures corresponds to which of the four gospels. This may well be because trying to connect a gospel to a creature based on the perceived characteristics of, say, a Lion or an Ox (as Irenaeus and the rest do in their discussions) is mistaken: it may well be that they should be connected based on the characteristics of the specific season (or the solstice or equinox) rather than to the characteristics of the animal or creature whose constellation governed that season. In other words, if one of the accounts has a "summery" aspect, then perhaps it should be connected to the living creature that looks like a Lion and corresponds to Leo and the summer solstice, and if another account has a "wintery" aspect, then perhaps it should be connected to the living creature that looks like a Man and corresponds to Aquarius and the winter solstice.
Robert Taylor follows such a procedure, and comes up with his own assignment of the four creatures, different from Irenaeus or Jerome, but interestingly enough in agreement with the layout proposed by Augustine.
Taylor simply argues that because Matthew is the longest, and since days are longest in summer and specifically at summer solstice, then Matthew must correspond to the Lion (as Augustine in fact assigned it as well).
Since Mark is the shortest, and since the days are shortest at winter solstice, Taylor assigns Mark to the Man who represents Aquarius and the winter solstice during the Age of Taurus.
The other two correspond to the equinoxes, and Taylor notes that in fact Luke and John are both of them nearly equal in length and that both are shorter than Matthew but longer than Mark. He gives Luke the Ox (as do all the others -- on this point everyone seems to be in agreement), and John the Eagle (here he is in agreement with everyone but Irenaeus).
It is interesting that all of them have Luke assigned to the Ox, which corresponds to the sign in which the year "starts" during the Age of Taurus. This is interesting because it is Luke who gives us the most comprehensive gospel account of the birth of Jesus. This connection may or may not be valid, since of course the birth narrative is full of winter solstice imagery, but it is interesting, especially since the signs clearly correspond to the Age of Taurus and since this is the one correspondence agreed upon by all the commentators we have examined.
It is also interesting that Taylor's proposal matches up with Augustine. We know of Augustine that he was highly trained in Platonic philosophy -- and it is quite clear that the Platonic school in ancient times was a preserver of the exact type of esoteric knowledge that we are discussing here.
It is also extremely noteworthy that we are using the zodiac constellations from the Age of Taurus -- an Age of great antiquity. Much of the imagery from the Old Testament seems to celebrate the arrival of the Age of Aries, including the famous incident of Moses smashing the tablets of the law when his brother Aaron insists on establishing an idol of a Bull calf. The New Testament gospels, of course, often use imagery suggesting that they are heralding the advent of the Age following the Age of Aries: the Age of Pisces (which is now drawing to a close, as we enter the Age of Aquarius).
So, where did these patterns corresponding to the Age of Taurus come from? I believe they may be an important clue pointing to the fact that the scriptures of both the so-called "Old" and "New" Testaments come from extremely ancient sources, and very likely from ancient Egypt. This is another discussion, but it is a very important one.
Finally, it is of course ironic that Irenaeus is here referring to a passage with deep foundations in celestial metaphor, and that he is doing so as part of his massive work Against Heresies, the entire purpose of which was to counter the arguments of the Gnostics (broadly speaking -- there are technical distinctions within the broad concept of the Gnostic approach, and Irenaeus attacked many of these in turn within his work, such as the Valentian teachings and many others). The very essence of what I would broadly term "the Gnostic approach" (as opposed to the literalistic-historicist approach that Irenaeus was championing) is the idea that these scriptures should not be understood as describing literal or historical events and figures, but that they are to be understood esoterically.
In other words, if one were to argue that Jesus was not a literal or historical character but that these scriptures were designed to enable the individual to perceive the "Christ in you," that could generally be described as a more Gnostic understanding of the scriptures -- and it would generally be strongly condemned by "orthodox" literalist Christianity.
And yet, the insistence that the four gospels that tell us the story of the Christ all correspond to the great wheel of the year is to point to the fact that these stories in fact are all about "the Christ in you." Because, as many previous posts have labored to explain, the up & down motion of the sun through the year, and the daily motion of the sun, stars, and planets from one horizon to the other and then "down into the earth," can be understood as a powerful allegory for the experience of each and every human soul, plunging down from the spirit realm into incarnation, and toiling through the space "between the horizons" (between the equinoxes, in the lower half of the circle) before ascending again into the heavens, perhaps to repeat the cycle over and over (at least for a few trips, until whatever we are learning to do down here is learned).
From the above discussion of the four "tetramorph" living creatures of the Lion, the Ox, the Eagle and the Man, it is almost certain that this is in fact exactly what the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are actually intended to convey.
And that may well be why the images of the four living creatures started to disappear from printed texts and their connections to the four gospels started to become less emphasized, after printing presses became prevalent and Protestantism put Bibles in just about every household that wanted one, in stark contrast to previous laws preventing people from reading these sacred texts for themselves.