Jesus Christ, who began what became the religion of Christianity, was assisted in his ministry by a group of 12 apostles. These 12 men, also sometimes referred to as the 12 disciples, each brought something unique to the group. Each disciple is referred to in artwork by symbols that show what sets him apart from the others.
Symbols of the Four Gospels
The Bible is divided into the Old Testament, which is a collection of Jewish writings, and the New Testament, which is a collection of Christian writings. Within the New Testament, the four Gospels are narrative accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, and those are called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The four men the Gospels are named for are sometimes referred to as the Evangelists. Of them, Matthew and John are also among the 12 apostles. The symbols of Matthew and John are associated with their role as Evangelists, so it makes sense to address them separately here.
The Old Testament book of Ezekiel is a prophetic vision starring four living creatures which each had four faces: the face of a human being, the face of a lion, the face of an ox, and the face of an eagle.
Ezekiel, living in Babylon, would have likely been aware of the Zodiac signs, which were used in Babylon at that time — and those four creatures match the symbols of the four fixed signs of the Zodiac. Taurus is an ox, Leo is a lion, Scorpio is an eagle, and Aquarius is a human being.
In the Christian narrative, Jesus Christ is seen as the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s prophecies. The book of Revelation, an apocalyptic prophecy at the very end of the New Testament, reprises the same four living creatures. These four symbols are also shown in the corners of the Tarot cards Wheel of Fortune and The World.
Astrologer Konstantinos Gravanis notes that efforts to match the four living creatures to the four Evangelists began early in the history of Christianity. The set of associations most commonly used now dates back to Jerome, a Christian scholar who died in the year 420, though other variations exist.
Matthew is represented by an angel or winged man. This is the symbol of the Zodiac sign Aquarius.
Mark is represented by a lion, sometimes shown with wings. This is the symbol of the Zodiac sign Leo.
Luke is represented by a bull, sometimes shown with wings. This is the symbol of the Zodiac sign Taurus.
John is represented by an eagle. This is the symbol of the Zodiac sign Scorpio.
These well-known associations of the Evangelists with Zodiac signs differ from the associations of all 12 apostles with Zodiac signs given by astrologer Bernd Mertz that will be discussed later in this article.
Where You Might See the Symbols and Symbolism of the 12 Apostles
Many Christian churches are named after one of the 12 apostles. Many cities and towns are also named after one of the 12 apostles.
The symbolism of a particular apostle might be emphasized in the decorations of a church or city named after him. Some churches and art museums may also have works of art depicting multiple apostles.
Other Significant Groups of 12
The number 12 may perhaps be familiar from a few other places. One is earlier in the Bible, where there were 12 tribes of Israel. Though the apostles do not individually represent the tribes of Israel, Jesus was Jewish, as were many early Christians, and the 12 apostles may have helped support the idea that Christianity was a natural continuation of Judaism.
Also, astrology recognizes 12 Zodiac signs. Astrologer Bernd Mertz associated each of the 12 apostles with one of the 12 Zodiac signs — and said that the apostles are shown in the correct order of the Zodiac signs in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting The Last Supper, reading the painting from right to left. Those associations will be given in the description of each apostle.
As a group, the 12 apostles show that it takes a varied group of people with different strengths and weaknesses to get things done. The individual symbolism of each apostle often references things like his profession or how he died. Many of the apostles, like Jesus Christ, were violently killed for their beliefs.
Most of the apostles are also recognized as saints within at least the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity. The exception is Judas Iscariot, on the grounds that he caused Jesus Christ to be crucified by betraying him to the authorities. Judas Iscariot committed suicide after this happened, and the other apostles replaced him with Matthias.
The names of the apostles are not always given consistently from Gospel to Gospel. Wikipedia provides a spreadsheet of the variations on the name of each apostle.
Zodiac Sign: Aries
Known For: Also called “The Zealot.”
Symbols: Britannica reports that Simon was killed by being cut in half with a saw. Simon is therefore represented in symbolism with a saw.
Thaddeus (also known as Jude)
Zodiac Sign: Taurus
Known For: He’s NOT the same person as Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ.
Symbols: The National Shrine of St. Jude reports that St. Jude is often depicted with a flame above his head, referring to the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles at Pentecost. Other symbols include a medallion of Jesus, referring to the healing of King Abgar of Edessa, and wearing green to represent hope and renewal.
Zodiac Sign: Gemini
Known For: One of the four Gospels. Before becoming an apostle, Matthew worked as a tax collector, which was an unpopular profession.
Symbols: Angel or winged man; a book to represent the Gospel.
Zodiac Sign: Cancer
Known For: Philip was one of the disciples named in the story of the feeding of the five thousand, in which Jesus Christ was able to make a small amount of fish and bread feed a large crowd.
Symbols: Britannica reports that Philip is often depicted with loaves of bread, representing his role in the feeding of the five thousand.
James, son of Zebedee
Zodiac Sign: Leo
Known For: Being the brother of John.
Symbols: Follow the Camino reports that the remains of St. James were taken to Spain. His resting place is a popular destination for Christian pilgrimages to this day. Symbols of St. James therefore include paraphernalia associated with travel, such as a pilgrim hat, a scallop shell, or a walking staff.
Zodiac Sign: Virgo
Known For: After Jesus Christ rose from the dead, he appeared to many of the disciples. Thomas, however, was absent at that moment, and he doubted the story when it was told to him later. He finally believed it when Jesus appeared to him directly and let him touch his wounds. The phrase “Doubting Thomas” comes from this story.
Symbols: According to Christian tradition, St. Thomas later served as a missionary in India, as reported by Britannica. A style of cross prominent at some Christian churches in India is called the St. Thomas Cross. As shown at Navrang India, the St. Thomas Cross and variants including the Persian Cross have flowers on the ends.
Zodiac Sign: Libra
Known For: One of the four Gospels. Referred to as the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Symbols: Eagle; a book to represent the Gospel.
Zodiac Sign: Scorpio
Known For: Betraying Jesus, which led to the crucifixion of Jesus.
Symbols: Thirty pieces of silver (what he received for betraying Jesus).
Zodiac Sign: Sagittarius
Known For: Originally known as Simon, son of John, Jesus gave him the name Peter. Jesus later said that Peter was the rock on whom he would build his church. In the Roman Catholic tradition, Peter is seen as the first pope.
Symbols: Peter was the first pope, so he is associated with the crossed keys that are the symbol of the office of the pope. As described in key symbolism, Roman Catholics believe that Jesus Christ gave the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter, and the keys were then passed down to all subsequent popes. Crossed keys are often shown with one in gold that represents spiritual powers and one in silver that represents worldly powers.
Peter also worked as a fisherman before becoming an apostle. In recognition of this, popes since the 13th century have used a signet ring known as a fisherman’s ring that depicts Peter as a fisherman, according to Britannica. The symbolism of Peter therefore includes boats and other items related to fishing.
Zodiac Sign: Capricorn
Known For: Being the brother of Peter.
Symbols: St. Andrew is represented by an X-shaped cross — like the one on the flag of Scotland, where he is recognized as the country’s patron saint. VisitScotland reports that St. Andrew “asked to be crucified on a diagonal cross as he felt he wasn’t worthy to die on the same shape of cross as Jesus.”
James, son of Alphaeus
Zodiac Sign: Aquarius
Known For: Also sometimes referred to as James the Less. He was likely a relative of Thaddeus, according to Britannica.
Symbols: A Guide to Christian Iconography notes that a club is the symbol associated with St. James the Less, as he was clubbed to death.
Zodiac Sign: Pisces
Known For: Many Bible scholars believe that Bartholomew is also referred to as Nathanael, according to Learn Religions. In the story of Nathanael, Jesus mentioned having seen Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. A fig tree is therefore one of the symbols associated with Bartholomew.
Symbols: Bartholomew was killed by being skinned alive, so he is often depicted holding skin or a knife. A prominent example of this is in The Last Judgment, a fresco by Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel. As My Modern Met points out, Bartholomew is shown there with both skin and a knife.