The saints were his friends and blessed him;
the monsters were his friends and kept watch over him.
― Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
I don’t know anything about architecture. I don’t know the terms, styles, or theory. But I do appreciate artistry when I see it.
One thing I appreciate is the detail and another is creativity. This is where gargoyles come in. They are amazing, aren’t they?
Staring down at you from up on high. Whether serious or whimsical, they carry a lot of impact for their size. They exhibit a certain je ne sais quoi. It is as if they bear a sentiment from a long time ago. Or they embody great wisdom and many secrets from their years of reconnaissance and voyeurism. Whatever it is, it is fascinating.
That is the inspiration behind this article. I wanted to learn about gargoyles and present my version of the gargoyle Hall of Fame.
What are gargoyles?
The term gargoyle has come to be a catchall term for different types of architectural sculpture. What is commonly referred to as a gargoyle may actually be a grotesque or guardian. To clarify, I begin with a little terminology:
Decorative waterspouts portraying humans, animals, or a mythical combination (see chimera). They are essentially gutter spouts. Their purpose is to divert the water away from the walls and foundation of a building.
Decorative sculpture on a building. They are not a functional part of the drainage system. They can be on ledges and corners on the outside of buildings, but also on entrance keystones and other internal parts of the building. See below an example from the Cathedral Church of St. Mary, Lincoln, England.
Decorative sculpture at the entrance of a building or other important place, such as a tomb or garden. See an example below of a lion sculpture at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Sofia, Bulgaria
A mythical creature that is a hybrid of multiple animals and/or a human. The sphinx is a chimera of a lions body with the head of a human. A mermaid is another example. See an example of a guardian depicting a chimera below.
Of course, gargoyles go by different names in different languages which give clues to their function.
In Italian, grónda sporgente means protruding gutter. In the middle ages the term babewyns referred to gargoyles as well as grotesques.
In German, wasserspeier means water spitter.
In Dutch, waterspuwer means water spitter.
In Spanish, gárgola means gullet or throat.
In French, gargouille from the verb gargouiller means gurgle or rumble.
Where and when were gargoyles used?
It is common to associate gargoyles, grotesques, and guardians with great churches and palaces of medieval Europe.
In fact, they have all been used worldwide. The ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Greek, Roman, and pre-modern China all have used these sculptural works.
Gargoyles are still being created today. They may be brand new designs or intended to replace badly deteriorated ones. Hopefully, this practice continues and the craft doesn’t die.
Why do gargoyles exist?
There are different theories surrounding the elaborate nature of gargoyles. Gutters would have worked just as well without an embellished design. Also, grotesques and guardians served no water drainage purpose. So why make the gutters so ornamental? Various theories are:
- They represented sin and temptation. Once inside the church or building, the people would be safe from the temptation of the outside world.
- They illustrate that sinners can be turned to stone for their deeds. Basically scaring you onto the road to salvation.
- They displayed pagan imagery to make converters more comfortable with a new belief system. Specifically, Green Man has ties to pagan beliefs.
- They protected and guarded the building by warding off evil spirits. Some legends even have the gargoyles flying off the building at nighttime.
- They were inspired by and tried to explain the discovery of dinosaur bones. Bones must have been found, but not fully understood.
- They were for entertainment of the public, utilizing either macabre or satiric humor.
- They were artistic freedom for artists. Artists often worked on commission and had little latitude on design. It was their one chance to let their own creativity shine. Gargoyles and grotesques are all unique. The character displayed in each one is incredible.
(See Related: Why you need to experience the Buckingham Fountain)
Water drainage is important because of the damaging effects on buildings. Unfortunately, all the elements take their toll on the gargoyles as well. Rain, ice, wind, pollution, bird droppings in addition to the running water all can wear down the sculpture to nothing.
You will note that many gargoyles will have pipes inserted to reduce erosion. Sadly, they are usually quite obvious and change the aesthetic of the sculpture.
How are gargoyles made?
Gargoyles, grotesques, and guardians were made using a variety of materials. Often limestone and marble are the medium. Wood, terracotta, and possibly brick have been used in the past, but don’t withstand time and the elements well.
Most sculptures were likely completed or nearly completed on the ground and then hoisted into place with a pulley system. The carving was only a small piece of a larger block that was part of the building. They can be quite heavy weighing up to half a ton or more.
Hall of Fame
There are wonderful gargoyles, grotesques, and guardians all over the world. And they are all unique. Furthermore, they are often physically far from the viewer. These all add up making it impossible to see them all.
I thought I would help you out and create a Hall of Fame. This will shed light on the extraordinary ones that stood out to me. I hope you enjoy it.
Do you recognize this quintessential grotesque? He represents gargoyles in popular culture due to the popularity of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Most likely to not be there next time you look
Is it just me or does it look like these guys have had enough guard duty? They definitely want off that ledge.
This guy is just calling for your attention with his bright colors and crown.
Most likely to be put on the front of a car
With his view of the New York City streets, he definitely could lead the way.
Most likely to offend
Rumor or political statement, this gargoyle was supposedly directed at the city council regarding a payment dispute.
Best condition for age
Dated to the 1st century BC, this guy looks amazing for his age.
Most influenced by popular culture
What could represent popular culture better than everyone’s favorite bad guy?
Most likely to truly terrify you
Deterioration due to the elements has only caused this gargoyle to become even more haunting.
Most likely to amaze you with artistry
The detail and culture wrapped up in these guardians is enough to take your breath away.
Overlooking Paris with the Eiffel Tower and the Seine, this gargoyle is sitting pretty.
Scary or fascinating?
What do you think? Do they mesmerize you too? Do you think they add to or take away from the already beautiful architecture of these buildings?
Do you have a favorite? Have you seen any in person that you love? Let me know in the poll or comments.
25 Epic Gargoyles From Around The World from List 25
40 Gargoyles and Grotesques Around the World from Twisted Sifter
Benton, Janetta Rebold. Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings. New York: Abbeville, 1997. Print.
Cipa, Shawn. Carving Gargoyles: Grotesques, and Other Creatures of Myth. East Petersburg, PA: Fox Chapel Pub., 2008. Print.
Gargoyles – Glorious Gruesome Grotesques from Kuriositas
Gargoyles ~ Grotesques from Crystal Links
Gravely Gorgeous from Cornell University Library
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Quotes from Goodreads