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Just What is a Gargoyle?

A Gargoyle is a grotesquely carved human or animal figure found on an architectural structure, originally designed (believe it or not) to serve as a spout to throw rainwater clear of a building. They later became strictly ornamental and assumed many forms.

The Natural and Unnatural History of Gargoyles

The gargoyle often makes his perch

On a cathedral or a church

Where, mid eclesiastic style

He smiles an early Gothic smile

Oliver Herford

Welcome. Your are about to meet a peculiar race of creatures which inhabited the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages, proliferating between the 11th and 13th centuries. Some of their decendants have ventured away from churches, migrating to other important buildings, but they have not fared as well as those still comfortably situated in cathedral walls. If you look up you may see one now and then…

Let’s go back a few centuries and find out what they are and how they came to be.

The Medieval Mind

To understand medieval sculpture you must imagine the medieval person’s powerful belief in God. The cathedral was the manifestation of their faith. Every person in the community contributed something. Those with no gold to give could harnass themselves to the large carts which dragged stones from the quarry to the building site. The cathedral was to be the most beautiful structure on earth, and no task was considered too arduous for the glory of God.

The cathedral was also to be a “sermon in stone” which could be “read” by an illiterate population. Some gargoyles clearly fill this instructional purpose by illustrating Bible stories, from Eve’s first reach for the apple to frightening images of eternal damnation.

But not all gargoyles were for religious instruction. Some were simply grotesque. One reason for this is the belief that frightening figures could scare away evil spirits, and they were put on the outsides of buildings to do just that. You will see a lot of heads that have become detached from their bodies. This harks back to the 5th Century Celts who were, in fact, head-hunters. They worshipped the heads that they had severed, believing them to hold a powerful force. If you make eye contact with one, you may find out that this is true.

Figures of ambiguous gender and species are frequently encountered in the world of gargoyles. Ancient people were no different from people today in finding amalgrams of male/female or human/animal bodies somewhat frightening. Pagan religion existed to confront and surmount chaos and danger. Chaos is represented by lifeforms which do not fit into known categories.

You will find that an inordinate number of gargoyles have their mouths wide open and their tongues protruding. Why?

The mouth pulled open is a frequent symbol of devouring giants. In order to convey size in a small sculpture, much smaller figures are placed next to the “giant”. The act of pulling the mouth open is a threatening gesture which serves to remind us that we are vulnerable to forces larger than ourselves.

The Celts often depicted a human head entwined with foliage. Branches coming from the mouth or crowning the head were a sign of divinity. Often, the branches are of the oak tree which was sacred to the Druids. Images like this have come to be called “Jack O’Green” or “The Green Man”

Fertility was the major theme of pagan religions, and fertility symbols were not excluded from cathedral walls. If these symbols were on the outside walls, they might scare off evil spirits. This would explain how some fairly crude sexual imagery came to be preserved on the outer walls. However, some would argue that these images may arouse more than they discourage. The most crudely sexual image is perhaps that of Sheelagh-na-Gig, commongly found on medieal Irish churches. Her eyes are typically round and deeply drilled, with no mouth and an obscene pose:

Perhaps the most famous French gargoyle is the lurking and lovesick Quasimodo who rings the bell of Notre Dame.

What’s the Difference?

A gargoyle is a carving on a building, usually of stone or wood, and is part of the guttering system that helps to prevent water from running down the walls. It expels water by means of a pipe, usually found in the mouth of the carved figure–which can make quite a bit of noise. (The one above is known as the Upside-down Gargoyle because it was carved to show people on the ground the “topside” of a gargoyle.)

A grotesque serves the same function as a gargoyle, but there is no pipe in a grotesque. Instead, rain water flows off the head, nose or other protruding part, and stays off the wall.

Gargoyles and grotesques are often, but not always, carved in the form of fantastic or imaginary animals or people. A number of our Cathedral carvings memorialize or honor real people, often in a funny way. Our sculptors were always very careful that the carvings were funny, but never mean. Care also has been taken to make sure that no political statements have been made in our carvings. Some carvings depict real animals instead of imaginary ones.

Did You Know?

 Washington National Cathedral has 107 carved stone gargoyles. No one has ever tried to count all of the grotesques – there are just too many !

 There are no gargoyles on the east end of Washington National Cathedral – the architect thought they interfered with the design of the building.

 The modern word “gargle” comes from “gargoyle,” and “gargoyle” comes from the French verb “gargoullier” which means “to gurgle.”

 The correct technical name for a grotesque is “buttress gablet termination stone carving.”

 Most of our gargoyles were carved on the ground and installed later, when the construction reached the proper height. However, a few were actually carved in place, or “in situ.”

 Many of our grotesques are actually beautiful angels. There are two hundred and eighty-eight (288) on the west tower pinnacles alone.

 Four of the grotesques were designed by kids! In 1984 National Geographic World magazine held a draw-a-grotesque contest. The winners:

 sagacious grotesque,

 Bertha’s braces,

 raccoon on lookout, and

 Darth Vader.

All are placed high on the northwest tower, but you can see them with binoculars.

Back to Stuff for Kids & Teachers

You will find that an inordinate number of gargoyles have their mouths wide open and their tongues protruding. Why?

The mouth pulled open is a frequent symbol of devouring giants. In order to convey size in a small sculpture, much smaller figures are placed next to the “giant”. The act of pulling the mouth open is a threatening gesture which serves to remind us that we are vulnerable to forces larger than ourselves.

These figures were situated atop buildings of the Greeks and Romans, usually placed at the apex or corners of a triangular roof. Often they represented a figure that was essential to the use of the building, such as a religious or imaginary individual that helped to illustrate what the building was sued for, whether it be a temple of one type or another. While there is little evidence that suggests why these figures were actually placed atop the buildings, most of the evidence suggests that the reasons were either symbolic, much like the use of gargoyles for repelling evil, or for architectural balance, in light of the fact that the architecture of these cultures was incredibly grand

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