Folklore, History & the Study of Myth

The Writings of Gary R. Varner

Gargoyles & Grotesques

Gargoyle: Westminster Abbey


Details: Gargoyles, those strange, monstrous beasts which reside in and on some of Europe’s most famous churches and cathedrals also seem to have taken up residence not only on our own American continent, but in our imaginations and hearts. Over the years they have appeared in movies (Gargoyles, the 1972 production starring Cornel Wilde as an anthropologist investigating tales of winged demons in Arizona) and cartoon series as a half-human, ancient race of pseudo-super heroes. Green Men are commonly believed to be gargoyles but, while they share many of the physical locations, they are an entirely distinct species of art and can be regarded as grotesques rather than gargoyle. The Green Man’s origins, meanings, and even some of his physical qualities have merged with the gargoyles although their paths have long been separate.

Gargoyles and grotesques can take a variety of forms. Dragons, devils, demons, half-human and half-animal are the most common but there are a large number as well that are caricatures of real people or classes of people. The styles and possible meaning and functions will be discussed here. While there is growing interest in these carvings, which originated during the time of ancient Egypt, there is not a large amount of meaningful written material concerning them. In fact, even though the Victorian age was responsible for a huge number of gargoyles during the Gothic Revival period the architects and scholars who were responsible for the revival did not seem to care about the gargoyle’s interpretation. There hasn’t been much of an improvement in the 20th and 21st centuries either.


Very little has been produced on the history or symbolism of these works of art. Books about Gothic and Romanesque church architecture, especially that of France’s Notre-Dame Cathedral, have the greatest amount of detail concerning gargoyle and grotesque carvings but as historic accounts they are superficial at best. As Bill Yenne wrote, “there is no accepted explanation of why they exist as they do.” (1) The Gothic Revival period produced the largest and most varied number of gargoyles and grotesques—as well as the most beautifully carved—however, the origin of the gargoyle dates much earlier. According to Bridaham, “A gargoyle dug up at Alesia dating from 160 AD, shows a plain channel with a human head as spout.” (2)

No two gargoyles are identical even though there were thousands at one time peering down at people from across Old Europe and Britain and many still exist today, although many of these are reconstructions.

It is unfortunate today that the art of stone carvings has almost died out in the Western World. There is hope however. One school of stone carving still operates in the United States and the master carvers which graduate from there are restoring and creating these magnificent works once again. The modern world would not be the same without these weird, humorous and monstrous objects, which reflect the hidden fears of our soul as well as our ancient past.

THE ORIGIN OF THE GARGOYLE

The word “gargoyle” comes from the Old French “gargouille” which is derived from the Late Latin “gurgula” meaning “throat” or “gullet”. The connection is obvious when one considers that most gargoyles in the strict sense were intended to be gutter spouts to direct rainwater from the roofs of buildings. Over the years however, as is the case with language in general and certain words specifically, the word has changed and “gargoyles” (3) have come to symbolize any carving of a grotesque nature—regardless if the carving has a functional or purely decorative purpose.

Medieval folklore records the name “gargoyle” as originating in a dangerous dragon, called La Gargouille that lived in a cave near the Seine River in France. This dragon was described as having a long, serpent-like neck, heavy browns, slender jaws and snout, with membranous wings. The French people in that area came to fear the dragon due to the flooding caused by its ability to spout water, its destruction of ships and the damage caused by its fiery breath. The citizenry attempted to reduce its destructive acts by annually providing it with a human sacrifice—normally criminals although it apparently preferred maidens.

A Christian priest, of course, saved the day. Sometime during the 6th or 7th century Fr. Romanus rode into Rouen and told the people there that he would take care of the dragon if they built a new church and agreed to be baptized. They, of course, agreed. Romanus, prepared with the tools needed for an exorcism, tamed the dragon by making the sign of the cross. He led the beast back to the village on a leash made from priestly garments where he promptly burned the dragon at the stake. The head and neck were severed and mounted on the town wall—becoming the inspiration for gargoyle making around France and Britain.(4) La Gargouille was carved in stone to commemorate the event on the exterior of the Rouen cathedral where it may still be seen today. An annual festival was held in Rouen to celebrate this victory of Christianity vs. dragon until the French Revolution brought it to a close. Bridaham noted that along with a procession and festival, “a criminal condemned to death was set free each year and given high honors.” (5)

While the most distinctive gargoyles we are familiar with today originated in the early 12th century, the use of decorative water spouts was known to the ancient Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks and Romans. Gargoyles of the ancient Greeks were acknowledged as far back as 1862. An article in The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal of that year stated “We know how commonly the rainwater which fell on the roofs of Greek temples was made to issue from the mouths of lions carved on the cyms of the cornice: they were, in fact, the true gargoyles of the Greeks.” (6)

The gargoyle''s rise to prominence during the Middle Ages was due to their use on cathedrals and other church structures. Depending on who you chose to believe, the church either viewed the demonic images carved in stone as a metaphor for Christianity’s washing away the sins of the world and to frighten Satan, or, according to researcher Darlene Crist, they were ”placed…on churches to entice pagans—their much needed future parishioners—inside.” (7) Others say that the dragon and demon images were placed on religious buildings in order to subdue them, to hold them bound to the superior force of Christianity. “True gargoyles”, wrote art historian Janetta Benton, “are thought to date from the beginning of the twelfth century. In the Gothic era, especially during the thirteenth century and thereafter, gargoyles became the preferred method of drainage.” (8) In fact the “true” gargoyle originated near what is today Paris, France around 1150 CE. Within one hundreds years, with the spread of Gothic architecture, gargoyles were appearing all over Europe.

The classic gargoyle that we recognize today is no longer constrained by geography or time. It appears in the New World as it does in the Old. Gargoyles identical to those on Nortre-Dame Cathedral in Paris can also be found in Spain, the Netherlands, New York City and Corvallis, Oregon.

While the early Gothic period gargoyles were stubby and crudely done, they quickly evolved and the images became more refined, realistically and artistically executed. How and why these images originated is lost to our contemporary age but we are able to safely conjecture that they represent a mixture of ancient Greco-Roman art and Celtic mythological creatures. Their re-emergence as fixtures on the grand Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of Europe in the 12th century is not doubted, but why they did emerge at that time is perplexing. Prior to the 12th century water spouts in the form of fantastic creatures appeared singularly, not in the rows or “rookeries of fantastic hybrid monsters,” (9) as Bill Yenne calls them, that characterizes their appearance during the Gothic period.

The use of gargoyles as decorative and functional architectural motifs continued into the 16th century and appeared not only on ecclesiastical buildings but also on homes and secular buildings throughout Europe.

NOTES

1. Yenne, Bill. Gothic Gargoyles. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 2000, 18.
2. Bridaham, Lester Burbank. Gargoyles, Chimeres, and The Grotesque in French Gothic Sculpture. New York: Architectural Book Publishing Co., Inc. 1930, xiv.
3. One of the many theories concerning the English word “gargoyle” is that it is derived from the French “gargariser” which means, “to gargle”.
4. Benton, Janetta Rebold. Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings. New York: Abbeville Press 1997, 11-12.
5. Bridaham, op cit, x.
6. Smirke, Sydney. “Lectures on Architecture at the Royal Academy”, in The Civil Engineer and Architects Journal, Vol. 25. London: W. Kent & Company 1862, 112.
7. Crist, Darlene Trew. American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone. New York: Clarkson Potter 2001, 16
8. Benton, op cit.
9. Yenne, op cit., 14.


Gargoyles and the Church

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Gargoyles on Spire - London, England

Details: Gargoyles and grotesques are found around the world. In many of California’s missions the friars created lavanderias, or open air laundry areas that were used not only for washing clothes but also for bathing. At California’s largest and richest mission, Mission San Luis Rey located today in northern San Diego County; water from the San Luis Rey River was diverted into channels and poured out of the mouths of “gargoyles” carved into walls. It is unknown if these grotesque images added to or minimized the Indian’s ritual use of water. Constructed in 1798 with the use of forced Indian labor, it is also unknown if the Franciscan friars or the Indians carved these gargoyles, but undoubtedly the concept was one brought to Old California from the Old World. It is interesting to note that the San Luis Rey gargoyles are very similar to those excavated at Mount Auxois, France that date to 160 AD.

Some have theorized that these images were placed on ecclesiastical structures to protect them, to act as magical “stop” signs to repel Satan and his minions, or as “spiritual scarecrows”. Others take the opposite view, stating that gargoyles were made as ugly as possible to actually represent evil. In this way, parishioners were made to feel safer once they entered the church—knowing that evil and danger lurked outside the sanctified walls of the church.

The stone masons had not used the image of the devil in religious sculpture until the middle of the tenth century. As the year 1000 approached, however, it suddenly became a worry of everyone that the world may come to an end with Christ’s return as foretold in the Bible. “In consequence of this state of fearful anticipation,” wrote Evans, “we find the devil and his acolytes making their appearance in the latter half of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century on the capitals and friezes, the doorways and pediments of churches, frequently as human monsters with jagged wings and forked tails, or that hideous abortion of an affrighted imagination, the dragon. The object of such creations was to exert a religious influence by inspiring terror.” (1)

Evans remarks may very well give us a good foundation as to why and how the gargoyles and grotesques were created—they were part of the churches campaign to ensure that the parishioners lived in utter terror of the End of Days. How better to enforce church attendance and docility than by providing a daily reminder of the horrors to come.

However, Evans goes on, as the millennium came and went without the end of the world the gargoyles and grotesques took on a different form. By the 15th century they became, as Evans says, “far more comical than terrible…They are devils who are fallen into dotage and visible decay, and with whom the artist can take all sorts of liberties, turning them into clowns and buffoons for the amusement of the populace.” (2)

Some of the most common attributes of both gargoyle and grotesque are horns and cloven hoofs. Many Green Man images in North America contain either the curved horns of the ram or the straight horns so often associated with Satan. These characteristics are part of a far older religious tradition, pre-dating Christianity by thousands of years. These horned gods were worshipped to ensure prosperity and fertility. Fertile fields, herds, as well as human fertility were fragile things that must continue to ensure the survival of the human species. Pan, Faunus, Cernunnos and other gods of fertility are perhaps the oldest of humankinds deities. The Christian church did all that it could do to either destroy the time honored traditions and rituals that focused on these gods or to assimilate them into the Christian iconography. Pan, Faunus and Cernunnos became images of the Devil and their forms were taken from pagan temples to decorate early Christian structures. Over time, their images became part of Christian symbolism but they retained their dual natures, representing the pagan way of life and belief as well as the Christian warning for demons and the consequences of sin.

The Church embraced these pagan images but only as a way to instruct the people that the old ways were evil and must be thrown off if salvation was to be obtained. In so doing, the Church ensured that the gargoyle and grotesque would survive and continue to exist in their dual nature.

NOTES

1. Evans, E.P. Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture. London: W. Heinemann 1896, 333-334.
2. Ibid., 334.