The Gargoyle

3 minutes read

They hang around town on old buildings, hide away on garden paths and come alive on movies about Ghostbusters. Many of these creatures were originally designed during the Medieval Period as very ornate rain spouts. The word "gargoyle" (along with the word "gargle") was derived from the French word "gargouille" meaning "throat". Stone carvings of these ugly creatures that do not serve as rain spouts are more accurately called "grotesques". Grotesques that combine two or more beasts are called "chimeras". We conveniently group them all under the Gargoyle heading.

Gargoyles, grotesques and chimeras have been displayed on buildings from as early as 700 A.D. They’ve served as moralistic reminders of what can happen to sinners, acted as guardians against evil spirits and have served as visual story-tellers for the church during the Middle Ages when most people were illiterate. Having had roots from Pagan worship the use of these monsters as ornaments on Christian buildings often came under scrutiny. They were a tool that early Christian leaders used to help convert pre-Christian practices and symbols into those of the Catholic Church.

Though the variety of gargoyles are as numerous as the artists who created them there are a few reoccurring commonalties:

The Green Man - A pagan legend, the green man roams the woodlands of Europe and represents spirits of plants, trees and foliage. He is depicted as a man’s face peering through a mask of green leaves, usually Oak. Sometimes he may have horns. He is also called "Green Jack", Jack-in-the-Green and "Green George". Until I researched the subject I simply called him the "Leaf Man". In Pagan ritual, Green George was dunked into a pond, thus ensuring enough rain to keep his forest green. The Celts had Oak branches coming from his mouth or as a crown around his head. This was a sign of divinity; the Oak was sacred to the Druids.

Big Wide-Open Mouths - Mouths wide open is symbolic of devouring giants. Pulling the mouth open is a gesture that reminds us that evils larger than us exist. Disembodied Heads - 5th Century Celts were head-hunters who displayed and worshipped the heads they severed as a repository of divine power. Horned Creatures - These beasts grew to become images of Satan. The tongue that Satan displays in many of these carved works represents traitors, heretics and blasphemers. He is meant to be funny instead of repulsive as he taunts his victim.

The Seven Deadly Sins - These are characterized by animals:

Pride Lion

Envy Serpent

Anger Boar

Sloth Donkey

Greed Wolf

Gluttony Bear

Lust Pig

The Legend of La Gargouille

A legend that circulated in Medieval villages concerns a 7th Century dragon named La Gargouille. He lived near Paris in a cave near the River Seine. He would ascend from his cave and swallow ships and men and terrify nearby villagers. Each year villagers sacrificed a convict in hopes of appeasing the beast. The village was saved by a brave priest named St. Romanis who, in exchange for his services, asked that a church be built in his honor and all citizens baptized. A battle was fought and the priest was victorious. He dragged La Gargouille’s body back to the village and set it aflame. The head and the neck of the dragon would not burn so they mounted it on the church wall. That is how the first gargoyle water spout was created.

Today, though we no longer need the pagan symbolism, gargoyles are a very popular addition to our architecture and gardens though these are rarely true gargoyles (meaning rain spouts). Artists continue to create new gargoyles, grotesques and chimeras. Though the gargoyles designed today all carry the same "ugly creature" look, they do have differing tastes from their ancestors. While researching this fascinating subject I came across one who eats hamburgers and one who drinks coffee.

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