The four evangelists traditionally appeared alone, but in 1526, Albrecht Dürer showed two groups of two evangelists, and about 1566, Frans Floris showed all four together. Other artists followed suit. Bloemaert’s student Hendrick Terbruggen (1588–1629) and Peter Paul Rubens prolonged the theme, but it disappeared after 1621.
Here the Utrecht painter attempts to unify the evangelists and their symbols in a logical, horizontal composition. Luke with his ox, Mark, John with his eagle, and Matthew with his angel are gathered around a table, each figure intently writing his Gospel. Mark’s lion peeks out from underneath a heavy carpet. Bloemaert boldly poses Matthew with his back toward the viewer, perhaps to convey an impression of an uncontrived gathering of figures in a realistic setting. The scene is set in a shallow space, but the vibrant coloring of the figures, the angularity of their poses, and the frontal lighting give the composition a feeling of depth. Various naturally observed details stand out, such as the broken rush seat of Matthew’s humble chair and Luke’s ox, which gazes out from this learned gathering. The patron saint of artists and doctors, Luke is shown with the tools of these professions, including the artist’s palette and the doctor’s bottle for urine samples, and he is writing the Gospel in Greek characters. One of the folio volumes at his feet bears Bloemaert’s signature on the spine.
Utrecht was a Catholic stronghold, and Bloemaert, a practicing Catholic, was a founding member of its painter’s guild in 1611; he had patrons in both the Northern and the Southern Netherlands. The location for which this painting was commissioned has not been identified. The subject of the four evangelists appealed to both Catholics and Protestants, so it might have been a "safe" subject for a Northern Netherlandish Catholic church.
This canvas portrays the four evangelists with their symbols—Matthew with the angel, Mark with the lion, Luke with the ox, and John with the eagle—receiving the divine inspiration to compose their gospels. The subject is notable for its relative doctrinal neutrality and popularity among both Reformed and Catholic audiences of the day. The depiction of the evangelists as a group originated with Albrecht Dürer’s Four Apostles panels of 1526, but after Peter Paul Rubens painted the subject in 1614, its appeal subsided. Bloemaert’s work possesses a strong visual presence, suggesting that it was intended for display in a public context, perhaps in one of Utrecht’s clandestine Catholic churches. In the primarily Calvinist northern Netherlands, churches in Catholic Utrecht adhering to the old confession had to remain outwardly invisible. Spatial limitations often required altarpieces of nontraditional formats—even horizontal compositions, like The Four Evangelists. Bloemaert’s versatility and aptitude for appealing to audiences across confessional divides find striking testimony here.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).