Ralph Adams Cram & The Winged Creatures



At entrance to Chartre Cathedral - Photos courtesy Mary Ann Sullivan  

The amount of explicit Christian symbolism at Shadyside Church is greater than in a typical Presbyterian church (or other church in the Reformed tradition).  Most of this stems from the time between the installation of the Rowe narthex screen (about 1920) and the symbols on the outside of the Parish Hall (about 1953).  Other than the depictions of Christ (in the mosaic, the Agnus Dei of the communion table and six main stained glass windows), the four Evangelists are depicted most often. 


Tiles manufactured by the Pugin Company, 19th C., England (photo credit - http://www.beatitudo.org/ )

In addition to pictorial representations in the four rectangular windows in the transepts, Shadyside has three instances of ancient symbols for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Each is associated with a winged creature (a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle, respectively).  Sometimes called the “Beasts of the Evangelists,” similar symbols date to the early centuries of Christian history.  This particular set of connections is attributed to St. Jerome in the fifth century.  

German Ivory Carving

Ralph Adams Cram (1863 - 1942)

American architect who made extensive use of  explicit Christian symbolism in church design

There are two sources for these creatures. 

Ezekiel 1:10,11 “Their faces looked like this:  Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.  Such were their faces.  Their wings were spread out upward; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body.”  (Four creatures, sixteen faces, eight wings)

Revelation 4:7,8 “The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle.  Each of the four living creatures had six wings…”  (Four creatures, four faces, twenty-four wings)

Although obviously related, neither description precisely prescribes the traditional form of “beasts” associated with the Evangelists (Four creatures, four faces, eight wings).  

The reasons for the modern associations vary with the source, but generally are as follows:  Matthew is the winged man because his Gospel emphasizes the humanity of Christ and begins with his human genealogy.  Mark is the winged lion (a beast of the wild) since his account begins with the story of John the Baptist, a voice crying out in the wilderness.  Luke is the winged ox – his Gospel tells of Christ’s sacrifice for us.  John is an eagle (which soars closest to Heaven) and he reveals Christ’s divinity.  


At Shadyside Presbyterian     

The beasts support the desk platform of Shadyside’s Lectern.  Here, they are well developed three dimensional sculpture.  Their wings touch, as in Ezekiel, but their relative placement follows neither Old nor New Testament arrangement.


Across the chancel, in the spandrels of the round arches on the Pulpit, the four Evangelists appear individually in bas relief.  The Pulpit and Lectern were furnished contemporaneously during the 1937-38 remodeling of the sanctuary.  The chancel furnishings were designed by Charles Marcus Osborn, coincidently a cousin of Shadyside member Elizabeth Macfarlane.   Osborn performed similar work at the same time for Heinz Chapel.


Miss Macfarlane noted that Osborn had once worked for Ralph Adams Cram.  Cram, the great Gothicist, placed heavy emphasis on Christian symbolism in architecture.  For Osborn’s work in Pittsburgh, it is unclear whether he was working for Shadyside’s architect, Wilson Eyre, or Heinz Chapel’s, Charles Klauder.  Both had their practices in Philadelphia.  Klauder certainly knew Cram, as they collaborated on buildings on the Princeton campus.  Eyre must have been a known quantity to Cram, who wrote a series of magazine articles on Philadelphia architects in 1904.


The third occurrence of these symbols at Shadyside is found at the doorways at the Parish Hall.  The carvings are alto relief, intermediate between the Lectern and Pulpit.  These are helpful in an instructive sense, as they are labeled with the Evangelists' names.


At Calvary Episcopal   

The winged creatures were  favorite symbols of Cram’s.  In the 1938 book, Church Symbolism, (for which Cram wrote the Preface) nearly a whole chapter is devoted to them.  That book stipulates that it is only proper to depict the creatures with a nimbus (a halo like disk reserved for holy beings.  Cram’s designs here are “nimbed.”    For his 1906 Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside, he designed the baptismal font.  The pictures here are of that font.



At Holy Rosary 

Cram returned to Pittsburgh with Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church in 1928.  Above the side entrance, the “beasts” are found again.



At Bryn Athyn Cathedral 

While many of his churches were for Episcopal congregations, Cram was twice commissioned by Swedenborgians.  They undertook the construction of a cathedral at Bryn Athyn in eastern Pennsylvania.  The principal benefactor and client was John Pitcairn (brother of Shadyside’s Robert Pitcairn). 

Cram had a falling out with Raymond Pitcairn, who took over the project after his father’s death.  However, much of Cram’s design was retained, as were several of his draftsmen who were working on site at Bryn Athyn.  The cathedral was dedicated in 1919, but work actually spanned decades.  On column capitals at one entrance, the creatures appear.  (Since none of these has a nimbus, they may have been designed after Cram departed.)

Other than the Cross and the Fish, these winged creatures are some of the most ancient and most enduring Christian symbols.  They are certainly the most ubiquitous symbols for the four Evangelists.