Gargoyles! They are the sacred monsters one sees jutting out of medieval buildings and churches and castles all over Europe. I really never quite knew what they symbolized. Wild, bizarre creatures hanging off the sides of these massive stone buildings as if they were fending off Satan himself!
So, with a little research and a lot of curiosity, I unearthed the ‘why & what’ behind the architectural detailing of gargoyles. Believe it or not, they actually had a real function on these buildings…as opposed to a mystical/spiritual one… as water spouts and deflectors of water off the sides of the buildings. But why the ugliness and horrific creatures?
Just a little bit of info: The word “gargoyle” actually is the English derivative of the French word gargouille, which means duct, and takes it’s Latin root from the combo of gar, the sound of liquid being swallowed and goule, the Old French word for throat. Although, the word ‘gargoyle’ was used first by the French in the 13th Century, in actuality the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Etruscans all carved grotesque animal forms on their buildings out of stone and terra cotta to be used for the same function, water diversion.
The variety of gargoyles runs from the freakish to the monstrous and it is interesting to ponder from whence this concept developed. Apparently, in pre-medieval times these creatures served not only as adornments to the buildings but also as protection against enemies and evil spirits. So they functioned in three ways, as beautification…although they were not beautiful in themselves,…water protection and as guardians to the communities.
There is a close association with the appearance of these hideous gargoyles in architecture in the Middle Ages and the rise of the Christian religion and it’s battle to abolish paganism. The stone carvings are beautifully executed, with a tremendous amount of imagination integrated into these “beasts” or “devils” that seem to lunge off of the sides of ancient buildings defying gravity.
Although primarily of animals and birds, the human animal has also been depicted as gargoyles on cathedrals. One also sees everything from pigs, monkeys, alligators, lions, dogs, birds, dragons and griffins all the way to hybrid beasts that seem to be someone’s hallucinatory dream. Encouraging the faithful to continue to be strong against their constant struggle between good and evil, often they depicted real battles or human drama.
Interestingly enough, gargoyles have also appeared in Asian structures such as the Temple of Heaven in Beijing (15th Century), and in more modern cathedrals such as the Sagrada Familia by Gaudi in Barcelona ( late 19th Century) and the Basilica of the National Vow in Quito, Ecuador (late 19th Century.)
The whole architectural concept fascinates me. Who somehow combined in his mind the need for water drainage and the use of these wild and outlandish stone carvings? Maybe, it was the old “kill two birds with one stone” theory!
So keep your eyes up when you are visiting these ancient buildings and churches in Europe, Asia and South America. One has to be in awe of these crazy monsters that lurch out and wonder what was the message behind the creation of each…and also wonder about the talented artisan that created them out of stone.
Ciao, ciao ’til next time.