The Grotesque World of Gargoyles
Gargoyles are an architectural feature that have existed for thousands of years. Initially designed to filter rainwater away from the edge of a building, they also have an arcane purpose – to ward off evil spirits.
Gargoyles were first created to prevent structural damage to buildings by preventing rainwater from running down the side of a monument and eroding the mortar between the stonework.
They are most commonly associated with the grand architecture of the Middle Ages, and they generally take the form of a grotesque figure spurting the water from a fearsome looking mouth. This grotesque appearance is why gargoyle like creatures on the sides of buildings with no structural purpose are known as ‘grotesques’.
Their unusual and distinctive appearance makes them a favorite feature of old buildings for many people, and they are even the topic of several legends and folktales.
What are Gargoyles?
The English term ‘gargoyle’ is French in origin. It comes from the words gargouille, meaning ‘throat’, and gargariser, meaning ‘to gurgle’. This reflects the fact the water tends to come out of the mouth of the gargoyle. The terms for gargoyle in other languages tends to be more descriptive.
In Italian, a gargoyle is called a doccione o gronda sporgente which translates to ‘protruding gutter’ while the German word, wasserspeier means ‘water spewer’. The Dutch term, waterspuwer has the more visceral translation ‘water vomiter’.
Gargoyles serve as water spouts, architectural gutters. (heju / Public Domain)
Gargoyles are carved from stone and take many forms. A large number of them depict chimeras – bizarre hybrid creatures mixing different animal parts. These include familiar chimeras such as griffins (a lion and eagle mixed) and harpies (a half woman, half bird) but also more abstract mixtures. Many of the hundreds of gargoyles on the Medieval cathedral of Notre Dame are (or were) chimeras.
The most famous of these is the Strix, or Styrga, a human bird hybrid which is posed with its head in its hands. It is the gargoyles of Notre Dame which have provided the popular image of gargoyles as horned creatures with wings, which is how many people picture them today. They were not added to the cathedral until the 1800s but were carefully designed and made to look like they were from the Middle Ages rather than a later addition.
Gargoyles / chimeras on Notre Dame. (Givaga / Adobe Stock)
As their function was to protect the buildings from erosion, many gargoyles bear the brunt of inclement weather and storms. This makes them prone to damage and erosion.
The Gargoyles of Legend
With such bizarre appearance, gargoyles have inspired many authors over the years. They feature prominently in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (along with the Disney movie of the same name) and in modern fiction such as shows like Doctor Who, Futurama, and Gargoyles.
Believed by many to ward off evil spirits, the myth of the gargoyle took on new life with the relatively recent idea that the stone beasts come to life in the dead of night to physically fight off spirits and act as guardians.
Their fearsome looks have also led some to posit that they are evil creatures, either as demonic beings possessed by the souls of demons or former human souls, or beings brought to life through the supernatural. Some stories center around gargoyles in a ‘Pinocchio’ type scenario, but with the architects imbuing them with their hatred and sinful thoughts.
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Gargoyle on the Pena Castle, Sintra, Portugal. (NICOLA / Adobe Stock)
They have also been depicted as a mythical race – this is a more modern idea and it appears in games and mythos such as the world of Dungeons and Dragons. The idea of the gargoyles being a race includes such details as them laying eggs which hatch and blend in as new architectural features, seemingly unnoticed by the humans who visit the buildings.
The original legend of the gargoyle (or more accurately gargouille) was French, and it described the heroic endeavors of St. Romanus, a 7th Century Bishop of Rouen, who was said to have saved the region from a monster called the gargouille. The gargouille was similar to a dragon with wings, a long serpent like neck, and the ability to breathe fire.
St. Romanus was able to subdue the gargouille with a crucifix and the help of a condemned man. They led the creature back to Rouen where it was burned – the head and neck did not burn because of its ability to breathe fire making them impervious to this, and they were subsequently mounted on the wall of the church. In honor of the contribution made by the condemned man, it became tradition for the archbishop of Rouen to pardon one person each year during the parading of the relic of St. Romanus.
Just like the gargouille of legend, stone gargoyles were mounted on the walls of churches. They are usually intricate, and it would be extremely hard to carve them if this was done in situ.
Ancient Origins of the Gargoyle
While they are most commonly associated with medieval architecture, their functional purpose means they have been around far longer than this. They appear in architecture in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, as well as on Etruscan buildings. The oldest known gargoyle is 13,000 years old and located in modern day Turkey – it is in the form of a stone crocodile. The ancient gargoyles did not ever take the form of chimeras or fictional beasts but were modeled instead on native animals.
The gargoyles in ancient Egyptian and Greek architecture were almost all in the form of lions. Many ancient Egyptian gargoyles were also carved with hieroglyphics. The Temple of Zeus originally had 102 marble gargoyles which depicted lion heads. The marble was extremely heavy, and due to erosion and the weight of the gargoyles, many of them fell from the temple over time. Thirty-nine of the gargoyles survive today.
Lion gargoyle at the Saint-Jean Cathedral, Lyon, France. (HJBC / Adobe Stock)
Lion head gargoyles are also a feature on many of the buildings in Pompeii, and as many of the villas and buildings in Pompeii were modeled on Greek architecture. It is an indicator that lion head gargoyles were the norm throughout the ancient Greek world. The lion remained a popular choice for gargoyles in medieval times which may be due to their prior association with the sun.
Their popularity waned when they became associated with the sin of pride, as they were no longer desirable motifs on religious buildings. It is very rare to find domestic cats as gargoyles in the Medieval period due to their associations with witchcraft and the occult.
Although most gargoyles depict mythical beasts or real animals, there is a third kind – depictions of real people. These gargoyles tended to represent notable figures in the community. Many of them depicted local benefactors, such as the people who were funding the work.
On other occasions the stonework was in the image of the person who was carving it, or of the architect who designed the building. There are even examples of gargoyles modeled after the local priests or bishops.
Animals as Guardians
While the lion fell from grace, other animals remained popular among architects and there are a wide variety of animals native to Europe which were chosen to protect buildings. The most commonly used animal was the dog. Dogs were seen as faithful to their masters, loyal, intelligent, and therefore excellent guardians.
During the Middle Ages, dogs were generally kept as guardians to protect a house from intruders. This is likely another reason they were chosen so often as a subject for gargoyles.
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Dog gargoyle on the outer wall of Munich's Neues Rathaus. (Ad Meskens / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Another commonly chosen creature was the wolf. Like dogs, they were respected and perceived as intelligent and protective. They were also recognized as working together in packs, which was the way multiple gargoyles around a building were supposed to help protect the architecture.
Aside from lions and canines, the eagle was a popular choice. The eagle was the subject of legends, and it was claimed they were one of the only creatures which could slay a dragon. They were also respected for their amazing vision.
Gargoyles as Messengers
Another reason gargoyles were popular during the Middle Ages is the fact literacy was not common among the general population. The church was able to convey messages through their gargoyles, and one such message was a reminder of evil and the devil.
Their ominous presence was a notice that attending mass was important to remain under the protection of the church. Their perceived magical powers and guardianship of the buildings they graced, also reminded the public that the church was a sacred area, free from the influence of evil spirits.
However, there were some members of the clergy who spoke out against gargoyles. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century leader of the church, was an outspoken critic of gargoyles. He gave a vivid account of his reasoning for this and described them as unclean, savage, and absurdities.
Lester Burbank Bridaham was wary of these interpretations of gargoyles, and in his book Gargoylaes, Chimeres and the Grotesque in French Gothic Sculpture he pointed to the problem of attributing too much symbolism to the sculpture of the Gothic period. While acknowledging there is symbolism within the architecture, he did not think there were as many messages as some people believe.
Gargoyles do seem to have been used as an aid in converting people who were following pagan religions. Many of them reference pagan traditions and folklore, particularly representations of anthropomorphized animals.
While gargoyles generally conjure images of Gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame and the buildings of Medieval Europe, they have remained in use in modern times. The majority of modern gargoyles are the grotesques which do not serve as drainage aids, but they are widely given the name gargoyles, and this is what most people consider them to be.
They were popular in architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries and many of the great buildings from these eras are adorned with gargoyles. One such building is the Chrysler Building in New York, which features a number of stainless steel gargoyles.
Stainless steel gargoyles on the Chrysler Building in New York. (Raw2daBon3 / Public Domain)
Other modern gargoyles can be found on churches, particularly those constructed during the Gothic Revival. The city of Pittsburgh is home to many gargoyles and grotesques as it became swept up in the Gothic Revival movement and they captured the imagination of many architects.
Construction began on the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC in 1908. It has a number of gargoyles, carved from limestone.
Many of these gargoyles depict more modern ‘beasts’ such as Darth Vader or crooked politicians – a clever spin on the idea of grotesque monsters vile enough to scare away spirits. The Darth Vader gargoyle in particular was the result of a contest for children, which who were tasked with designing a new gargoyle.
Gargoyle on the outside of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC. (pabrady63 / Adobe Stock)
One of the more notable modern gargoyles was added to the 12th century Paisley Abbey. The church was renovated during the 1990s, at which point several of the original gargoyles needed to be replaced.
In an absurd and rather fabulous move, one of the gargoyles was replaced by a depiction of the alien from the 1979 movie of the same name. As bizarre as it seems to have such a modern representation on an ancient church, the gargoyle is not juxtaposed to the beautiful stained-glass windows and Gothic architecture – it blends in perfectly.
Yet another example of this modern take on gargoyles is the Chapel of Bethlehem, a French church from the Middle Ages. By the 1990s it was in ruins, and when it was restored the stone mason tasked with sculpting new gargoyles made the unusual decision to base the new gargoyles on modern fictional creatures. As well as another alien gargoyle (it really does blend in) the Chapel of Bethlehem has a number of gargoyles inspired by the mogwai and gremlins from the movie Gremlins and one depicting a cartoon robot called Grendizer.
Although they serve a humble purpose, gargoyles have been an inspiration for architects for thousands of years. Why so many civilizations have decorated such a utilitarian feature in this way is a mystery, but they continue to entertain and impress people today and they will probably remain a feature in buildings constructed for many years to come.
Top image: Gargoyles on the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris overlooking Paris, France. Source: scaliger / Adobe Stock.
Updated on December 31, 2020.
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