The gargoyles were used in the middle ages and were the protruding part of the gutters of roofs. They were designed to drain rainwater some distance from the wall. They were ornamented with monstrous figures of Gothic architecture and mainly represented as animalistic human. The gargoyles were believed to be the guardians of the cathedrals and they came to life during the night. A chimera or a grotesque figure is a type of similar sculpture that does not function as drains and serves only for artistic and ornamental functions. They are also popularly known as gargoyles.
We all must have come across gargoyles whether in reality or in images, but never bothered to ask ourselves or anyone about what it is and why is it there. The only way we perceived it was either something ghostly or a spiritual matter maybe. But the reality is far from different. How much different? That’s exactly what this post is about.
Enjoy the surprising facts about Gargoyles statues and its history!
1 Origin of the Gargoyles
The origin of Gargoyles takes back to somewhere between the 11th and the 13th Centuries. Initially they served two main purposes – to scare off evil and to divert rainwater. Many of the early Gargoyles also had long necks. Talking about the origin of the word, the word “Gargoyle” originates from old French word “Gargouille” meaning “Throat”. It describes the murmur sound of water coming through the throat.
2 History of Gargoyles
The term gargoyle finds a major application to medieval work. Through the ages different meanings were adopted. In ancient Egypt, the gargoyles served as drains for the water used to wash the sacred vessels, which apparently had to be done on the flat roof of the temples.
Temples in Greece saw the use as outlets for water from the roof to pass through the mouths of lions. They were carved or modeled in marble or terracotta on the cornice. In Pompeii, many terracotta gargoyles were found modeled in the form of animals.
A French legend revolves around the name of St. Romanus (631 – 641 AD), the first chancellor of King Merovingian Clotaire II, who was acceded to the title of Bishop of Rouen. The story recounts how he and one more voluntary prisoner defeated Gargouille, a river dragon (or river serpent) who lived on the Seine in Paris and he is actually a ship eater creature. One day the bishop drew Gargoyle out of the river with a crucifix to the main square where the villagers burned him to death.
3 Gargoyles in historical buildings and the Church
Gargoyles were used in decoration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in constructions of cities such as New York and Chicago. Gargoyles can be found in many churches and buildings. One of the most impressive collections of modern gargoyles is at Washington National Cathedral in the United States. The cathedral begun in 1908 and is encrusted with demons with limestone. This collection also includes Darth Vader (a fictional character from Star Wars), a pervert politician, robots and many other modern version of ancient tradition.
In the twentieth century, many modern gargoyles were created, notably at the Cathedral, Duke University and the University of Chicago. Although most are grotesque figures, the term gargoyle includes all kinds of images. Some gargoyles are carved like monks, others combining real animals and people and many are comical.
The initial introduction of this architectural element was to boost water drainage, but the functions were not limited to this. They have been used for purely decorative purposes as well. Also in line is the use as “chimeras”, a name used for gargoyles representing fantastic beings or fruit of the mixture of characteristics of various animals. The functions can also be classified into:
1) Figures with educational intent for the majority of the illiterate population of medieval times, being symbols of evil forces and sinful temptations.
2) Protection of buildings and population against evil spirits.
Truth is that the Gargoyles symbolized the most horrific and evil creatures that can be converted to Catholicism. They were the representations of souls condemned for their sins, images of local demons, or protective spirits coming from the pagan culture of that region. In addition, they are the expression of fear of the collective subconscious or a mixture of all these opinions.
6 Interesting facts to consider
(1) Look at the gargoyles existing in various European Gothic buildings and you’ll find recurring themes originating from pagan beliefs.
(2) Separate heads of the body – the Celts worshiped heads like Gargoyles, as they used to believe it gave them a powerful force.
(3) Combination of animal species – The lack of knowledge about the world led the imagination of the men of the time to believe in bizarre creatures that would live in distant places.
(4) Mouths exaggeratedly open – The act of pulling the mouth to open it as much as possible is a menacing gesture.
(5) Men with green-man leaves – Celts often displayed human heads linked to plants. Branches coming from the mouth or crowning the head were a sign of divinity. Often, they are oak branches, which was a sacred tree for the Druids (priests who know magic in Celtic culture).
(6) Sexual Themes- The fertility cult through sex symbols was a common practice of pagan religions. Sheelagh-na-Gig is found in many Irish churches and is perhaps the most obscene representation. Another pagan motif is Cernunnos, a forest god with horns. He was the Lord of all animals and later, the church adapted him as the physical representation of the devil.
7 Gargoyles in Art and Architecture
Several types of motifs represented in the gargoyles. Animal motifs that were made were not only known to the sculptors, but also to animals from distant lands or animals represented in bestiaries or those known by travelers. Animals that are more represented than others are the dog and the lion. There was a symbolic relationship between the seven mortal sins and some of the animals represented: pride- lion and peacock, envy- dog, rage or anger- bear, greed- wolf and frog, gluttony- pig, lust- cow and snake, and sloth or laziness- goat and donkey.
The dragon was the most represented fantastic figure. They usually symbolize the devil, and are portrayed in different ways. Not to forget that they have some common features like wings, reptile tail, long snout and threatening expression. The fascination of the gargoyles lasted beyond the middle ages. We notice them in modern buildings, not because of the necessity of draining water, but mainly for decorative purposes. A beautiful example of this is those of the Torre do Tombo as well as some examples of gargoyles of Portuguese Gothic buildings.
8 Gargoyles in fiction
In contemporary fiction, gargoyles are typically depicted as a humanoid race with demonic characteristics. They usually have horns, tail, claws, and in some case beaks. Gargoyles can usually use their wings to fly or glide and often depicted with a rocky skin. In addition to a reference of their origins in sculptures, they possess the ability to turn into stone.
9 Gargoyles in the world of literature
There are numerous references of Gargoyles in various works of fantastic literature. They appear in distinct breeds, such as the Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Dungeons & Dragons and RPG Rifts. One of the gargoyles living in the world of Discworld got a position in the Ankh-Morpork police form where she became known as Constable Downspout. In The Key of Harmony: Cracks in the Order, by Marcello Salvaggio, are a species that coexists with elves and other fantastic beings in an imaginary past of humanity. In Andrew Davidson’s novel The Gargoyle, a relationship is approached between a porn star and a gargoyle sculptor.
10 Gargoyles in Comic Series
Gargoyles became a well known cartoon character with the start of the animated Disney series. They also were a part of the adaptation of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. The role of a violent gargoyle was played by the actress Adrienne Barbeau in the TV series Monsters; Actress Rae Dawn Chong played a gargoyle in human form in Tales of Darkness: The Movie. And in case you didn’t notice, a gargoyle named Firebrand appeared in the Ghosts’ n Goblins series as a tough enemy and a hero in his own Gargoyle’s Quest series. In the world of darkness, the Gargoyles were cast as a playable lineage.