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Studying Gargoyles and Grotesques: The Definitive Guide for Travellers

Gargoyles and Grotesques: The Definitive Guide

An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples or mature solo travellers interested in British and European history.

Studying Gargoyles and Grotesques

Gargoyles and grotesques were prevalent architectural features during the Gothic period, which thrived in Western Europe from the 12th to the late 15th centuries, persisting well into the 20th century during the Gothic Revival era characterized by a deep-seated interest in the Middle Ages. These unique figures can be spotted in various countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

This article delves into the historical significance of gargoyles and grotesques within the context of the Gothic period, offering insights into these captivating stone creatures that adorn buildings across Western Europe.

Our primary sources for this piece include Alex Woodcock’s “Gargoyles and Grotesques,” published by Shire Publications in 2011, and “Gravely Gorgeous,” an online publication by the Cornell University Library. Readers are encouraged to explore these resources for a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Additional references will be cited throughout the article to provide a comprehensive exploration of this intriguing architectural phenomenon.


The iconic gargoyles adorning Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral not only captivate those who have never laid eyes on the grand structure but also serve a vital purpose beyond their aesthetic appeal. These stone creatures, with their eerie yet captivating presence, are not true gargoyles unless they function as rainwater diverters, a role that defines their essence.

A medieval gargoyle from St. Mary’s Church, Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. Photo from Dun.can/Flickr.

Authentic gargoyles, often found on the facades of medieval cathedrals, universities, and town halls, serve the practical role of channeling rainwater away from buildings, thus safeguarding the masonry from water damage. Over the centuries, many of these grotesque figures have weathered the erosive effects of rainwater, eventually succumbing to deterioration and falling from their perches.

Grotesques, on the other hand, though visually similar to gargoyles, lack the functionality of water diversion and instead serve ornamental and symbolic purposes. The distinction between gargoyles and grotesques lies in their intended functionality in architectural design.

A grotesque from the Holy Cross Church in Great Ponton, Lincolnshire. Photo by J.Hannan-Briggs (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The term “gargoyle” finds its origins in the French word “gargouille,” meaning throat, hinting at the primary function of these architectural elements. The word’s etymology connects it closely to the act of gargling, reflecting the historical purpose of gargoyles in directing water away from buildings.

The term “grotesque” is linked to the style of these ornamental sculptures. The Italian fascination with Roman antiquity led to the excavation of ancient chambers adorned with murals depicting hybrid human-animal forms, referred to as “grottesca.” This artistic style evolved into the term “grotesque,” indicating anything strange or bizarre in modern parlance.

The use of hybrid human-animal imagery in architectural ornamentation traces back to ancient civilizations such as the Romans, as evidenced by the elaborate frescoes in Nero’s Domus Aurea. This classical tradition of incorporating fantastical elements into architectural design influenced the development of grotesques and gargoyles.

Fresco detail from Nero’s Domus Aurea. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of the grotesque frescoes of the ceiling of the Library Room at the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. Photo from Vassil/Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

In Romanesque and Gothic architecture, gargoyles evolved from simple waterspouts attached to corbels into elaborate, freestanding sculptures that adorned the exteriors of buildings. The transition from a purely functional role to a more decorative one marked a significant shift in the design and purpose of these architectural elements.

Example of a corbel. This one is from the Troyes Cathedral, which was built in the 13th century. Photo from the Cornell University Library.
A medieval corbel with what appears to be a waterspout, from the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Gosberton, Lincolnshire. Photo from Stephen Means/Flickr.

Notably, the renowned gargoyles adorning Notre-Dame Cathedral were not original to the medieval period but were added during a 19th-century restoration spearheaded by architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. Inspired by literary works such as Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Viollet-le-Duc reimagined the cathedral’s gargoyles as chimeras, mythical composite creatures, deviating from traditional gargoyle depictions.

Despite the deviations from historical accuracy, Viollet-le-Duc’s chimeras have become emblematic of Notre-Dame’s architectural identity, reflecting a blend of Gothic revivalism and 19th-century artistic imagination.

A collection of grotesques from Reims, France. Photo from the Cornell University Library.
Notre-Dame de Paris’s gargoyles, photo taken circa 1865. Photo from the Cornell University Library.
A view of Notre-Dame’s gargoyles and grotesques.


Among the myriad theories surrounding the peculiar and unsettling figures adorning ecclesiastical structures, the exact purpose behind their creation remains a mystery. Woodcock (pp. 15 to 19) presents several intriguing theories:

  •  Gargoyles and grotesques, akin to Egyptian hieroglyphs, could have served as a visual language accessible to even illiterate church attendees.
  • They might reflect the irreverent humor of masons who took liberties in crafting outlandish figures for the clergy.
  • Some suggest they symbolize demons banished through exorcism.
  • Others propose they embody pagan deities, possibly aiding in the assimilation of pagan worshippers into Christianity.
  • They could signify the threshold between the earthly and divine within the church’s space.

One prevailing theory, supported by Woodcock (p. 19), posits that these figures were intended to ward off malevolent spirits, effectively safeguarding the edifices they embellish. The more striking and uncanny the sculptures, the better; their ability to draw attention was believed to deflect any potential harm away from the structure.

The Gothic Mason-Carvers

While the architects Severus and Celer, as well as painter Fabullus, of Nero’s Golden House are known to us, the patrons and sculptors behind medieval gargoyles and grotesques remain shrouded in mystery.

Historical records do little to shed light on how the designs of these intricate sculptures were overseen. However, existing contracts imply that the mason-carvers enjoyed considerable artistic freedom in crafting these pieces (Woodcock, 2011, p. 23). Stone-carving was just one facet of a mason’s duties, bundled together with the myriad tasks required for church construction. Yet, as trades became more specialized from the 13th to early 14th centuries, a new breed of skilled sculptors emerged, able to demand premium prices for their expertise.

Woodcock’s insights suggest that some designs may have been replicated, hinting at potential mass production of gargoyles and grotesques. These creations were likely manufactured in workshops located near stone quarries and then transported to the churches that commissioned them (p. 26).

Furthermore, there is a compelling argument to be made that these sculptures, like other art of the medieval period, were once vividly painted (p.27). This stark revelation contrasts sharply with the drab, weathered appearance they bear today, stripped of their original hues and gilding by the passage of time. It’s intriguing to consider whether the vibrant colours used by our ancestors rendered the gargoyles and grotesques more approachable – or perhaps even more eerie – than they appear to us now.

Gothic Revival and Modern Gargoyles

In the 18th century, despite “Gothic” initially being a term used mockingly, there was a resurgence of interest in medieval art and architecture. This revival was fuelled by a sense of nostalgia and the popularity of stories set in the Middle Ages, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Gothic novels by authors like Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley.

These Gothic novels often featured eerie castles, mysterious mansions, and supernatural occurrences, reflecting a fascination with the irrational and mysterious, which was a reaction to the rapid changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. As these Gothic themes permeated Victorian literature, architects began incorporating Gothic elements into their designs, giving rise to the Gothic Revival movement, also known as neo-Gothic or Victorian Gothic. A notable example of this architectural style is the Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

The Houses of Parliament in London

The reintroduction of gargoyles and grotesques from the Middle Ages accompanied the construction of these new buildings and renovations, notably seen in the chimera of Notre-Dame. These sculptures often took on modern and sometimes whimsical interpretations of their medieval counterparts. For instance, the Washington National Cathedral features a grotesque resembling Darth Vader, symbolizing contemporary notions of ultimate evil, while the Salamanca Cathedral in Spain showcases an astronaut intertwined with floral motifs on its facade.

During a renovation of Paisley Abbey in Britain in the early 1990s, a gargoyle resembling the Alien monster was carved into the structure. Discovered in 2013, this gargoyle gained popularity on social media. While humor among stonemasons was once theorized to be the reason behind the creation of medieval gargoyles and grotesques, in the case of the Paisley Abbey gargoyle, this speculation might actually hold true.

The alien gargoyle on Paisley Abbey. Photo by Thomas Nugent (cc-by-sa/2.0)

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.

Odyssey Traveller also regularly organises tours to France for seniors. The 21-day Paris tour visits several key Parisian locations. Just click through to read the itinerary and sign up!


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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