Studying Gargoyles and Grotesques
Gargoyles and grotesques were a hallmark of the Gothic period of architecture, which grew popular in Western Europe from the 12th to the late 15th centuries, and which was carried over well into the 20th century during the age of Gothic Revival marked by fascination with the Middle Ages. You will find gargoyles and grotesques in countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom.
In this post we will look at the history of gargoyles and grotesques during the Gothic period to give us insight about these fascinating architectural figures perching from buildings all over Western Europe.
The chief references for this article are Alex Woodcock’s Gargoyles and Grotesques, published by Shire Publications in 2011, and “Gravely Gorgeous“, published online by the Cornell University Library. We recommend that you check out these sources to learn more. Other references will be linked throughout the piece.
Even those who have not been to the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral know its famous defining feature: the gargoyles perched on its exterior, like beastly sentinels surveying the city of Paris. Strictly speaking though, these simultaneously horrifying and fascinating sculptures need to serve one purpose before they can be called a “gargoyle”–they need to be able to divert the flow of rainwater away from buildings.
In essence, true gargoyles are decorative waterspouts which can be seen on the facades of cathedrals, universities, and town halls built in the Middle Ages, placed there to spout rainwater away from the building’s exterior and thereby limiting water damage to the masonry. Many of them suffer water damage themselves as centuries of rain course through them, and simply fall to the ground.
Similar-looking sculptures that do not convey water and serve other ornamental and practical functions are called “grotesques”.
One can guess the function of a gargoyle from its name. The word derives from the French word gargouille, or throat. “Gargoyle” and the verb “to gargle” have the same root.
Sculptures are called “grotesque” as a reference to their style. Italians during the 15th century took interest in their country’s Roman origins and began excavating ancient buildings. The uncovered chambers were called grotte (“cave”) because of their cave-like dimensions, and were found to be decorated with murals depicting fantastic flora and creatures with combined human and animal characteristics. The Italians called them grottesca (“cave painting”) and the term was adapted as a name for this art style. By 1561 it had mutated into the English noun “grotesque”, and in modern times the word is used to describe anything bizarre or strange.
Indeed, the use of hybrid human-animal imagery was not invented during the Gothic period, but dates back to the Romans. Roman interiors, based on archaeological findings, were lavishly decorated. The fantastic imagery on the walls of Nero’s extravagant Domus Aurea or Golden House (built between the Great Roman Fire of 64 and Nero’s death in 68) is an example of the “grotesque” style.
The ancient Egyptians and Greeks also used decorative stone waterspouts, and the use of roofline imagery is already evident in the classical style of architecture (Woodcock, 2011, p. 8).
The classical style was adapted for religious structures in Romanesque architecture (ca 1050 to 1200), when the first gargoyles were designed, with waterspouts added to small corbels. Corbels are decorative architectural structures that projected from a wall and supported weight.
In Gothic architecture, the grotesques and gargoyles were “freed from the constraints of a supportive function” (p. 9) and became larger and more elaborately carved.
During the Renaissance, the term “Gothic” was coined as a slur, synonymous to “barbaric”, referring to the architecture of the Middle Ages reminiscent of the Goths’ destructive influence on the classical civilisation of Rome.
The famous gargoyles that can be seen now on Notre-Dame did not resemble the gargoyles of the Middle Ages. The cathedral was constructed back in the 13th century and the medieval gargoyles began to disintegrate along with the crumbling cathedral. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, lead architect of the French national preservation initiative, the Commission des monuments historiques, began an elaborate restoration in 1843 that produced the gargoyles we see now.
He called them “chimera”, which in Greek mythology referred to a creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a dragon’s tail, a specific combination that Viollet-le-Duc’s chimeras did not follow, as they were a combination of other animals.
Viollet-le-Duc was influenced by Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), and the esteemed architect’s gargoyles later became the archetypal gargoyles, even though, as stressed by the Cornell University Library, “they are neither Gothic nor gargoyles, but products of the nineteenth-century imagination.”
There are many competing theories regarding the reason behind putting silly, bizarre, and frightening figures to decorate ecclesiastical buildings. If all that was needed was a weight-bearing structure or a waterspout, why carve them this way?
The truth is we may not be able to find an accurate answer. Among the many theories, as outlined by Woodcock (pp. 15 to 19), were:
- the gargoyles and grotesques, like Egyptian hieroglyphs, represent a kind of language which could be read even by illiterate churchgoers
- they represented the coarse humour of masons who got away with sculpting ridiculous figures for the clergy
- they represented the demons expelled by exorcism
- they represented pagan gods to help ease the transition of previously pagan worshippers entering the Christian faith
- they represented the transitional or liminal space of the church, where the human and divine spheres overlap
The most enduring, however, is the theory that they were designed to drive away or repel evil spirits (Woodcock, p. 19), making them protectors of the buildings they decorate. The more shocking and bizarre the sculpture, the better; by drawing attention to itself, it “diverted any malicious intent” away from the rest of the structure.
The Gothic Mason-Carvers
While we know the names of the architects (Severus and Celer) and even the painter (Fabullus) in charge of Nero’s Golden House, we know little about the patrons and sculptors of the medieval gargoyles and grotesques.
It is unclear how, or if, the designs were regulated, but surviving contracts suggest the mason-carvers were allowed to carve the sculptures as they pleased (Woodcock, 2011, p. 23). Stone-carving was simply one of the mason’s tasks and a service lumped with the overall work needed to be done to build a church, but the increasing specialisation among trade workers in the 13th to early 14th centuries paved the way for specialist sculptors who could command a high price for their services.
Woodcock also points out that the similarity in some of the designs may mean that they were mass-produced, the gargoyles and grotesques likely made at off-site workshops near stone quarries and transported to the churches that ordered them (p. 26).
It is also highly possible that these gargoyles and grotesques, like other sculptures created in medieval times, were painted in bright colours (p.27). This is a stark contrast to the dull, grey forms we see now as weather and time have already eroded their original paint and gilding. We can only imagine if the colours used by our medieval ancestors made the gargoyles and grotesques friendlier–or spookier.
Gothic Revival and Modern Gargoyles
Though “Gothic” was a term of derision, the 18th century saw renewed interest in the art and architecture of the medieval era, spurred by nostalgia and published stories set in the Middle Ages. Examples were the previously mentioned The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the “Gothic novels” of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley.
These novels featured old castles and strange mansions, and mysterious, supernatural phenomena. This exciting irrationality was a response to the rapidly changing world during the time of the Industrial Revolution. As Gothic motifs made its way into the Victorian era’s mainstream literary fiction, architects created new structures based on Gothic architectural themes. A prime example of this “Gothic Revival” (also called neo-Gothic, or Victorian Gothic) in architecture is the United Kingdom’s Houses of Parliament.
The gargoyles and grotesques of the Middle Ages made a comeback with these new buildings and through renovations, as exemplified by Notre-Dame’s chimera.
Some of the sculptures appeared on building facades as modern and at times tongue-in-cheek interpretations of the medieval structures. A Darth Vader grotesque adorns the Washington National Cathedral in the US as “a modern incarnation of supreme evil“, and an astronaut appears entangled in floral motif on the facade of the Salamanca Cathedral in Spain.
A gargoyle resembling the monster from Alien was carved during an early 1990s renovation of the 13th century Paisley Abbey in Britain. It was rediscovered in 2013 and went viral on social media. Stonemasons having a bit of a laugh was one of the theories for the medieval creation of gargoyles and grotesques–but in this instance, that theory might just be right.
If you want to learn more about gargoyles and grotesques, and Gothic and Gothic Revival architecture, join one of Odyssey Traveller’s many small group tours to the British Isles, including Queen Victoria’s Great Britain tour especially designed for senior travellers.
This article was prepared before the devastating April 15, 2019 fire that badly damaged the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral. The cathedral is currently closed. You can read about it on the cathedral’s official page.
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