About Gargoyles & Grotesques

October 09, 2020  •  Leave a Comment


Gargoyle Marienplatz MunichGargoyle Marienplatz MunichGargoyle in Marienplatz Munich Germany

Gargoyle Marienplatz Munich Germany

Northstar Gallery Gargoyles & Grotesques

The word "Gargoyle" shares a common root with the word "Gargle"; which comes from "gargouille", a French word for "Throat". A true gargoyle serves is a waterspout as part of the architecture of a building or cathedral. The word “gargoyle” is also a derivative from the Latin word, “gurgulio”, which had a double meaning of, “throat”, and the “gurgling” sound water makes as it passes through a gargoyle. An architectural  carving that does not function as a drain pipe is referred to as a "Grotesque".  legend has it, that a fierce dragon named La Gargouille described as having a long, reptilian neck, a slender snout and membranous wings lived in a cave near the river Seine. The dragon caused much fear and destruction with its fiery breath devouring both ships and men. Each year, the people of Rouen would placate Gargouille with an offering of a victim, usually a criminal, though it was said the dragon preferred maidens. Around 600, St. Romanis promised to deal with the dragon if the townspeople agreed to be baptized and to build a church. Romanus subdued the dragon by making the sign of the cross and then led the now docile beast back to town on a leash made from his priest's robe. St. Romans burned La Gargouille at the stake, it is said that his head and neck were so well tempered by the heat of his fiery breath, that they would not burn. The remnants of Gargouille's head were then mounted on the town wall and became the model for gargoyles for centuries to come. 3


Russell Sturgis, writing in Sturgis' Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture and Building, defines a gargoyle as a: A water spout, ... projecting from a gutter and intended to throw the water away from the walls and foundations. In medieval architecture, the gargoyles, which had to be very numerous because of the many gutters which were carried on the tops of flying buttresses, and higher and lower walls, were often very decorative, consisting, as they did, of stone images of grotesque animals, and the like, or, in smaller buildings of iron or lead. Many cultures throughout history have created sculptures of fantastic creatures. These figures stir our imaginations, as they stirred the imaginations of the carvers who lovingly created them. We struggle to understand and explain them, delving deep into the realms of psychology, culture, symbols, history and religion. One of the more common belief is that gargoyles served as protectors, keeping evil away from the buildings and their occupants. However, there seems to be much at work here and we can suspect that their reason to be, operates on a multitude of levels.


Gargoyles can be traced back 4000 years to Egypt, Rome and Greece. Terra cotta water spouts depicting: lions, eagles, and other creatures were very common. Gargoyles used as water spouts were found at the ruins of Pompeii. The Egyptians believed in deities with the heads of animals and frequently replicated these deities in their architecture and wall paintings. When the Greeks saw the Sphinx, they began to incorporate grotesques into their own beliefs. The Greeks believed in many grotesques such as harpies, centaurs, griffins, and chimeras. Greek architects would often place statues of animals called acroterium, in the forms of griffins, at each corner of the roof of their treasuries and temples. In Greek mythology, griffins guarded the gold of Scythia from the Arimaspians, a race of one eyed giants or Cyclops, who would try to steal the gold. 


Adrienne Mayor, in her book The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times,  presents evidence that ancient legends of monsters may be based on the discovery, by nomads',  of dinosaur bones in central Asia, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.


Mayor suggests; that the myth of the griffin, a winged lion with a birdlike beak, was inspired by the nomads' discoveries of fossilized bones of protoceratops, an animal that became extinct more than 65 million years ago.


Mayor shows that ancient Greek and Roman researchers collected numerous fossils of large extinct mammals and displayed them in temples and museums. "There they identified fossils as the relics of giants, heroes and monsters of myth," she says. Some ancient writers argued that the enormity of the supposed "human" remains proved the human race had since "degenerated" or "run down," becoming smaller and weaker. 2


Gargoyles and grotesques have always given carvers and sculptors a chance to delight in their creativity and to explore the possibilities in the dance between stone and imagination. Gargoyles freed carvers from the limits imposed by other types of carving, and this was especially true in the Middle Ages. It is certain that stone carvers love creating these pieces, and viewers certainly love seeing them. This may be one of the more compelling reasons they exist.


France has over 100 cathedrals, most built in the middle ages, with Notre Dame being the most famous. In the Middle ages, the populace, for the most part, could not read and write. Churches used visual images to spread  the scriptures and reinforce biblical stories. These included; paintings, frescos, stained glass, figures,  sculpture and gargoyles. Some believe that gargoyles were inspired directly via a passage in the bible. Others will argue that they are the expression of man's subconscious fears or, that they may be vestiges of paganism from an age when god would be perceived in trees and river plains. The churches of Europe carried them further into time; maybe to remind the masses that "even if god is at hand, evil is never far away and to act as guardians of their church to keep the evil spirits at bay. 3

Mary Ann Sullivan, The Digital Imaging Project used with permission


The Chartres Cathedral has approximately 4 000 sculpted figures, but above all it's the portals present stone work of incomparable quality. "The sculptors of the cathedral of Chartres are as anonymous as are its' architects. These artists were artisans working on order and not as individual craftsmen. The sculptors formed a trade association among the others. They worked as a group, around a master or overseer who very likely shared out the tasks in function of the aptitudes and competence of one or another while carrying out the major pieces himself." 11


During the 1200's when gargoyles first appeared in Europe, when the Roman Catholic Church was actively converting people of other faiths to Christianity. Since most people at the time were not literate, images were very important in communicating ideas and telling the stories of the faith. Many of the religious images that non-Christians were accustomed to were of pagan origin and were of animals or mixtures of animals and humans. Integrating familiar images on churches and cathedrals was thought to encourage the populace to accept  the new religion and ease the transition from the old ways and old beliefs. 4


Pope Gregory's instructions to St. Augustine regarding the conversion of the pagan people to Christianity offered additional incite into the role of gargoyles: "Destroy the idol. Purify the temples with holy water. Set relics there, and let them become temples of the true God. So the people will have no need to change their place of concourse, and, where of old they were wont to sacrifice cattle to demons, thither let them continue to resort on the day of the saint to where the Church is dedicated, and slay their beasts, no longer as a sacrifice but for social meal in honor of Him whom they now worship." Pope Gregory legitimized the integration of pre-Christian and pagan practices and symbols into the Christian church as a strategy to facilitate the peoples conversion to Christianity. 5


"During the Middle Ages, the church was a very central part of the lives of the people. The influence of the church was so great during the Middle Ages that even powerful nobles often yielded to its dictates. Deeds of mercy and justice performed by lords and barons were the result of respect for religion and fear of God. Many people during the early Middle Ages believed that the end of the world was coming soon, and many people regarded life on earth as a rather unimportant preliminary to the afterlife. To assure a place in heaven, everyone in the kingdom would do anything to please God, even help in the construction of their church in any way they could. The rich often gave gold, and the lower class would help by carting stones to the construction site. "Medieval man was convinced of a relationship between the Creation and his own creativity. To do work in or on the church "was an honor and a goal" 10. God had made man; therefore, what man made was only once removed from God and, accordingly, had to be worthy of Him" 9 p117. For this reason only the most skilled architects and craftsmen were allowed to work on the sculpturing of the cathedral.. These skilled craftsmen possessed the skills necessary to create the detailed creatures known as gargoyles and grotesques. 9 p117 "  8


The cathedral also served as a "sermon in stone" which could be "read" by an illiterate population. Some carvings clearly fill this instructional purpose by illustrating Bible stories such as Eve's reach for the apple and frightening images of eternal damnation. Since gargoyles were on the outside of the cathedral and scenes of the Bible and statues of Jesus, Mary and the Saints where common inside the building, this represented God's power to protect the believers. They also represented the struggle between good and evil and symbolized how God was the only protection from evil in a fallen world.


Gargoyles stand guard, warding off unwanted spirits and other creatures and If they're hideous and frightening enough, it was thought they would be especially effective in scaring off all sorts of other threatening creatures. Perhaps it was even believed that some came alive at night protecting people when they were most vulnerable. Better still, the ones with wings could fly and protect the village as well as the church. 


Gargoyles and grotesques crafted during Medieval times became increasingly grotesque in design. Soon they were referred to as “chimeras” because of their representations of creatures that were not of this world - half man, and half bird or beast. These new incarnations were either depicted sitting on their haunches or poised to take flight. They also possessed over exaggerated muzzles or beaks and other odd appendages. They were positioned on a cornice molding so they projected forward and away from the building for a number of feet. In this way the gargoyle was able to spew water far from the building. "Although the demons and monsters so prevalent in cathedral sculpture may seem almost quaint to modern eyes, the men of the Middle Ages did not find them so. In a time when illiteracy was  almost a universal condition and belief in a literal, waiting Inferno prevailed, the purpose of most cathedral sculpture was not decorative but instructional. It was intended, to scare the hell out of its beholders, and there is every reason to believe it did a creditable job, presenting the horrors of damnation in living color (of which only faint traces remain today)." 2


One of the most notable examples of Gothic architecture that incorporated many gargoyles and grotesques is Notre Dame cathedral, in Paris. It is interesting to note, that; once lead drainpipes were introduced in the 16th century there was no longer any practical need for gargoyles. However, architects and builders continued to incorporate them into their building designs, but now gargoyles served only a symbolic, spiritual, religious, decorative or whimsical purposes.


North America also has its fair share of gargoyles. They protect many of the older buildings in cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. University campuses are also prime “habitats” for gargoyles with Princeton and Duke Universities, being a good examples. There are 6 gargoyles at the old Headquarters of the Philadelphia Fire Department at 1328 Race Street Philadelphia, PA. These whimsical characterizations are outstanding examples of the use of gargoyles in modern times and capture the essence of what it means to be a fireman. 

Green Man BudapestGreen Man BudapestGreen Man grotesque Budapest Hungry. The Green Man symbolizes rebirth and renewal representing the cycle of new growth that occurs every spring. The Green Man is most commonly depicted in a sculpture, or other representation of a face which is made of, or completely surrounded by leaves or other foliage.

Greenman NYC

© Copyright 1999 Northstar Gallery

A very common image represented in the genre of gargoyles and grotesques is the Green Man. He is one of the most common figures as he stares down at us from the roofs, pillars and doorways of our great cathedrals and churches all over the world. The Green Man appears on second century Roman columns and in Hindu temples in India. He is found all over England, Wales and Scotland. He is present in the great banks and financial houses of Wall  Street. His roots may go back to the hunters who painted the caves of Lascaux and Altimira. In one of his many manifestations as Robin Hood and the Morris Dances of Old England, he is chiseled in wood and cut into stone even to this day by men and women who no longer know his story but sense that something old and strong and tremendously important lies behind his leafy mask. One of the earliest English epic poems Gawain and The Green Knight may refer to another manifestation of the Green Man as the God that dies and is reborn This powerful theme of death and rebirth runs through all the diverse images and myths of the Green Man. In all, death and renewal are celebrated as the "Green" that represents all life.


Medusa is another image that shows up frequently as a grotesque. The Gorgons were three  sisters. Two of the sisters were  monstrous with huge teeth, brazen claws and snakey hair. Sthenno and Eurayale were immortal, but Medusa, the third was mortal. Medusa, was a beautiful maiden who's hair was her crowning glory. She was loved by the god Poseidon in the temple of Athena. Athena was deeply angered and turned Medusa into a monster and changed her glorious hair into snakes. Athena made Medusa so ugly that that anyone who looked at her was instantly turned to stone. All around Medusa's cavern were stone figures of men and animals which had risked a glimpse her and had been petrified with the sight.


Athena sent Perseus to slay Medusa, she lent him her shiny shield and Hermes lent him her winged shoes. Perseus approached Medusa while she slept and taking care not to look directly at her, guided by her image reflected in the bright shield, he cut off her head and gave it to Athena. In her ugliness, Medusa was the grand sculptor, a creator of gargoyles and grotesques, immortalizing  their flesh by turning it into stone?


Carl Jung observes "A symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. Symbols, moreover, are natural and spontaneous products. Their origin is deeply buried in the mystery of the past that they seem to have no definitive human source. They are in fact "collective representations," emanating from primeval dreams and creative fantasies. As such, these images are involuntary spontaneous manifestations and by no means intentional inventions."  


The most likely truth is that all of these elements come together in explaining both the existence and our attraction to gargoyles and grotesques; the conscious, the unconscious, primitive religion, myth, Christian conversion, practicality and certainly the stone cutter's joy of creation. The images under consideration embody profound symbolic content from our "collective unconscious" and are significant and enduring symbolic manifestations of the human experience.


Stephen King in his introduction to Nightmares in the Sky states: "...This is rather ironic, because the lady with the snaky hair is probably more famous for turning folks to stone than she is for becoming a piece of sculpture herself.... Medusa, a creature too horrible for mortals to look upon, offers at least this cold comfort: in the end, she was too horrible to look at herself. She, that queen of nightmares with her writhing crown of snakes, become the world's first real gargoyle.


I am suggesting that the gargoyles....may continue to perform their original function: to drain away that which might cause rot and erosion. Their horrible, stony faces offer a unique catharsis; when we look upon them and shudder, we create the exact reversal of the Medusa myth; we are not flesh being turned to stone, but flesh proving it is flesh still. It is not too much to say that great art, no matter how primitive, recreates the imagination, and keeps it from turning to stone....Look closely, because we see these ominous lares of the human psyche so seldom. They are there, these nightmares, but thy are in the sky. Look closely, because even when you don't see them...they are watching you."1





1. Fitzgerald, f-stop. Nightmares in the Sky p35

2. Jacobs, Jay. Great Cathedrals p48

3. Adrienne Mayor., The First Fossil Hunters

3. Gargoyles, Dragons, and Other Formations

4. Gargoyle Etymology & History

5. Gargoyles Then and Now

6. Mary Ann Sullivan The Digital Imaging Project 

7. Jung, Carl. (1964). Man and His Symbols p55

8. John J. Triggs, Gargoyles in Medeival and Gothic Art 

9. Fremantle, Anne. Age of Faith

10. Mediaeval Culture

11. The Cathedral of Cartes


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Gargoyles, Dragons, and Other Formations http://www.gothicgallery.com/www-gothicgallery-com/AboutGargoyles.htm

Gargoyle Etymology & History http://www.stratis.demon.co.uk/gargoyles/gg-ety-hist-myth.htm#gargoyle_mythical

Gargoyles Then and Now 



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