What is a Tetramorph?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A tetramorph is an arrangement of four elements which is designed to highlight the relationship between those elements. Many tetramorphs appear in religious symbolism, although they can also appear more generally in art and architecture. One of the most famous uses of the tetramorph is in depictions of the four evangelists in Christianity; these depictions are often designed in the form of quartered panels with a different symbol in each panel.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Many religions all over the world and throughout history have integrated the tetramorph into their religious practice. Temples, for example, may include depictions of tetramorphs in the form of sculptures and paintings, and historically many temple floors were divided into tetramorphs. The use of a tetramorph allows people to unite distinct and sometimes seemingly disparate elements, highlighting the complexity of the nature of faith.

There are a number of ways in which a tetramorph can appear. In some cases, a tetramorph unites four elements in one object; for example, a lion might be depicted with an eagle's head, a snake's tail, and a set of wings. Works of art which unite the elements of a tetramorph into a common theory can be quite intense and sometimes horrifying, suggesting monsters more than objects of religious veneration. Wings are often present in tetramorphs, regardless as to the culture from which the tetramorph originates, suggesting that the desire to fly may be universal.

In other instances, a tetramorph includes four separate elements which are arranged in a symbolic fashion. Classically, the elements are displayed at four corners of a symbolic design which may be quite ornate, highlighting the difference between each object while also integrating them into a unified symbol. Such tetramorphs can be huge, spanning across things like ceilings and floors, or small enough to fit onto the page of a manuscript.

Each culture has its own tetramorphs, and often the symbolic meaning of a tetramorph is only clear to followers of a particular religion, who understand the references being made by each element in the design. Others are more commonly known; most people are familiar with the concept of the four quarters of the wind, for example. Tetramorphs can also appear beyond the boundaries of visual art; a string quartet, for example, could be considered a form of tetramorph, with the instruments representing unique elements which are unified and made larger in performance.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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