Gargoyles – they are strange, bizarre, unpleasant or just plain ugly. They have been hovering around our towns and cities for centuries, for so long that it can be forgotten that they have meaning and purpose. Take a tour of the weird world of the gargoyle.
A gargoyle is a carved stone grotesque statue, and they were designed to convey water away from the roof and the sides of large buildings. We associate them mostly with medieval times thanks to a certain hunchback but they have been around much longer than that. They are more than just scary statues as if they were not there then the mortar between the stones of their buildings would, in time, erode away and the building would fall over. Many gargoyles take the shape of animals and – lost to our modern minds – these creatures were chosen for a purpose. This is why.
Both lions and their female counterparts were a favorite choice for the makers of gargoyles. Here at Dornoch cathedral in Scotland a lovely lioness leans and growls at passers by. The lion was by far the most popular non-European animal to be used on churches and cathedrals in the middle ages. They were popular as gargoyles during older times (Pompeii is full of them) and they had symbolised the sun, with the golden mane representing the solar wreath of our life giving star.
However, by medieval times, the builders of cathedrals would use the lion as a symbol of pride, which is of course one of the seven deadly sins and therefore to be avoided by the God fearing denizens of the towns below them. This one at the Collégiale Saint-Martin à Colmar, Haut-Rhin in France looks particularly proud. Other than lions you will not get many other felines represented on these centuries’ old monuments. Cats were symbols of witchcraft and so were avoided as gargoyles (although occasionally you may find a cat’s head attached to a serpent’s body).
This fine gargoyle can be found at the top of the Philippe le Bel tower in the ducal palace of Dijon again in France. As popular then as they are now, dogs were rarely kept simply as pets and were often given guardianship of a home at night. As such they were seen as clever, loyal and faithful. So on one point they can be seen as those stone animals given the role of protecting these buildings but there was another reason for their presence too. Dogs are always hungry and were often common thieves during these times and so were included on the sides of cathedrals to show that even such a faithful animal as the dog can fall prey to the temptation of the devil and commit the sin of greed.
Although wolves too were linked to greed they were respected as an animal that lived through cooperation with its peers – and they gave rise to the ancient metaphor ‘the leader of the pack’. They were also linked to priests whose responsibility it was to protect the people from the devil – so the wolf was the protector of the lamb of God, as it were. Gargoyles come in packs too – and this was because the architects needed to divide the flow of rainwater off the roof. A single gargoyle would not be much good in a ferocious storm. Their strange elongation is also deliberate as the extra length will ensure that the water cascades as far away from the wall as possible.
A monstrous eagle as gargoyle on the Saint Rumbolds Cathedral in Mechelen, Belgium. These were protectors of the buildings, particularly against dragon as it was said that they were one of the few animals capable of destroying a winged serpent. They were also highly respected for the vision (which was again used as a metaphor and seen as foresight) and legend had it they had Phoenix like qualities. They were, it was said, able to heal themselves by looking directly in to the sun which itself is an ancient symbol of deity.
Krakow, Poland has this fearsome serpent to warn people of the sins of the flesh. The serpent is associated with original sin and as such can be found (most often winged) all over the cathedrals of Europe. From the days of Adam and Eve the serpent has been the symbol for the continual struggle between good and evil. In terms of the seven deadly sins, the serpent represented envy. Scarily enough they were also thought to be immortal which meant that the daily struggle against the sins of the flesh would carry on for all eternity.
Barcelona Cathedral has this marvellous goat gargoyle. Like many of the animals featured here it had a duality of nature in the eyes of medieval Christians. On one side they were thought to be Christ-like because of their ability to find food on steep mountainsides and nourish themselves from almost nothing (the Feeding of the Five Thousand springs immediately to mind as a parallel). On the other hand they were seen as quite venal creatures and were often seen as a symbol of lust – yet another one of those seven deadly sins. Plus, of course, which animal would you associate with Satan?
Our nearest relatives were seen as what happens to us when nature goes wrong. Often associated with stupidity they were, however, mostly associated with cunning and lazy. For this reason, their own particular deadly sin was that of sloth. It is no surprise that a large part of our examples originate from France - the one above is from the Sacré-Cœur in Paris. The word gargoyle comes from that language. Gargouille once meant ‘throat’ and the word itself came originally from Latin. There is also a connection to the French word for gargling – gargariser – and that is reflected in the Spanish gárgola as well.
Other languages are more precise. The romance of Italian is levelled somewhat – its word for gargoyle is grónda sporgente which literally means a protruding gutter. In German – always a direct language they are water spitters (Wasserspeier) and the Dutch go one step further – waterspuwer means to vomit water. And yes, that is where we get the verb ‘to spew’ in the English language. However, animal gargoyles aside, the most delightful of them all are often considered to be the Chimeras.
York Cathedral in the North East of England has a set of particularly scary chimeras. Although we might not be too afraid of them ourselves, used as we are to the like of the Saw movies, the average medieval person – superstitious and illiterate – would find them pretty scary. A chimera is born when different types of body parts come together to make a completely new creature, such as a happy, a centaur or a griffin (with mermaids being popular in fountains for obvious reasons).
Milan cathedral has a fine set of Chimeras too, where renaissance thinkers stand next to strange creatures from the minds of the mad. These chimeras are no strangers to the heights of medieval religious buildings and were seen to represent those who underestimated the power of the devil. Although he could not create life he could mix it up to produce truly fearsome creatures – crimes against nature.
Some of the most famous gargoyles in the world can be found at Notre Dame in Paris. Even Disney studios cannot divert from their sense of foreboding, even if one of them does seem rather bored. Wouldn’t you be after six centuries?
The French have a legend around one of their saints, Romain. In the seventh century he was made the Bishop of Rouen and he fought a creature called the Gargouille. It was a dragon like creature, with wings, a long neck and was able to breathe fire. When Romain subdued the dragon he was not able to destroy its head as it had been tempered by its own breath. So, it was mounted on the walls of Rouen cathedral to scare off evil. The above, however, is from de Kathedrale Basiliek van Sint-Jan Evangelist.
Saint Vitus Cathedral in Prague has some very scary individuals but these are not animals or chimeras. These are people. The moment of damnation is frozen in time for hundreds of medieval souls throughout Europe. Mouths agape they scream through the centuries as a constant reminder – be vigilant against the devil or this may happen to you! Possibly the most frightening of all gargoyles are those that bear such a close resemblance to ourselves?
This can be found in Nottingham in the Midlands of England. A reminder for all eternity not to try and chew your toenails. Anyone who has read Chaucer has quite possibly sat bolt upright when confronted with the occasionally vulgar sensibilities of the Middle Ages. They called a stone a stone in those days and most certainly, the gargoyles of Europe often reflect this in no uncertain terms. If you were outside a cathedral you were closer to hell than being inside – and the tortures of that fiery place were never far away.
Leave it to the Germans to make things blindingly obvious, however. Again, reminiscent of the denouement of one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, this gargoyle from Freiburg Cathedral turns tail and delivers you your final ignominy. Time to repent, no doubt.