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Gargoyles & Grotesques, Part 1

Link - article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams

Grinning Gargoyles and Grimacing Grotesques

We’ve all seen them, those odd looking carved faces, some with horns, some half animal or half human, often looking miserable, scowling at us from the outer walls of buildings. Often they’re spotted on churches and other older structures, but the practice of adding these ornamentations to more recently constructed buildings is quite common too.

(images via 1, 2)

So where did these things first come from? One story about the origin of gargoyles comes to us from France. It was said that a massive dragon dwelled in a cave on the banks of the Seine, attacking ships on the river and also terrorizing the local population of the city of Rouen. The people made a sacrifice to the ferocious beast each year, calling it La Gargouille. However, at some point in the in the seventh century, Saint Romanus, in true knight in shining armour fashion, slew the dragon. The monster’s body was burnt on a massive fire, but the head, being accustomed to heat from the beast’s fiery breath, resisted the flames. So the people decided to keep it and mount it on the wall of a local church, as a warning to any other dragons who might be thinking of setting up camp near their city. And so the tradition of gargoyles began, or at least, according to this story.

(images via 1, 2, 3)

In reality, it would appear that gargoyles first started to appear between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, their primary purpose simply being to divert rainwater. The carved figures have open mouths and long necks because they are really just decorative spouts, directing rainwater away from the building’s foundations. The word ‘gargoyle’ derives from the Latin word ‘gurgulio’, meaning ‘throat’ and also refers to the sound of liquid passing through the throat. This word has naturally also been adapted into other related Latin based languages such as French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and other ancient cultures all employed decorative waterspouts on buildings to some degree, often in the shape of a lion’s head, but the gargoyles we are most familiar with date from the Middle Ages.

(image credit: Kevin Trotman)

Gargoyles became a common sight in twelfth century Europe, especially on the outside walls of the continent’s great cathedrals. The stone carvings were usually quite scary depictions of people, animals, birds, mythological creatures, human/animal hybrids and so on, and very different to the statues or carvings of saints and other religious figures both inside and outside the same building. This was because as well as being simple drainage devices, gargoyles also served to remind the largely illiterate congregation of the nature of good and evil, plus encourage them to attend church. As was pointed out in the earlier articles here on Dark Roasted Blend entitled "Britain’s Colourful Pub Signs" Part One and Part Two, a visual reference was needed for the bulk of the population who couldn’t read.

(images credit: Paul Malone, Ron Hilton)

The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is famous for the gargoyles adorning the exterior of the building:

(images via 1, 2, 3, 4)

Also in Paris, here we see one of the gargoyles decorating the Basilica St Denis:

(image credit: Angus McIntyre)

While this one on the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur shows a view of the water channel (plus various water spouts disguised as fish, or tongues):

(images via 1, 2)

Various carved lions are guarding the Meaux Cathedral in France (left) and the Cathedral of Tarragona in Catalonia in northern Spain (right):

(images via 1, 2)

These fearsome looking creatures can be seen on the St.-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk in Ostend in Belgium (below left); while these dragon-inspired carvings decorate Ulm Cathedral in Germany (right):

(images via 1, 2)

The United Kingdom has a large number of medieval religious structures. These gargoyles are from York Minster:

(images via 1, 2)

These are from Westminster Abbey in London:

(images via 1, 2)

Gargoyles weren’t restricted to religious structures, as we can see from these examples decorating Windsor Castle (below left). The one below right is situated on the roof of Himeji Castle in Hyogo, Japan:

(images via 1, 2)

Gargoyles at the Concert Hall in Valencia, Spain (designed by the famous Santiago Calatrava):

(image credit: Angria)

The outer corners of the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building in New York feature these stainless steel eagles, replicas of the hood ornaments of 1929 Chrysler vehicles:

(image via)

"Terror Behind the Walls" haunted prison tours are held at Eastern State Penitentiary (abandoned since 1971) - complete with some of the most frightening gargoyles we've ever seen (more info):

(images via)

Not really a gargoyle, but a great monster statue spotted in the abandoned South Korean park:

(image credit: Jon Dunbar)

"A whimsical architect is said to be responsible for a group of figures in the ceiling of the main entrance to a fashionable church in Fifth Avenue, New York." (more info):

(images via)

In Saratov, Russia, this howling gargoyle was spotted on the 1902 College-Conservatory of Music - probably making the most horrible sounds imaginable:

(images via)

In South America, Quito Cathedral in Ecuador has a collection of gargoyles. In this case however, rather than the traditional figures we’re used to seeing, the Quito gargoyles depict the native animals of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands:

(images via 1, 2)

A common question is whether a carved figure is a gargoyle or is it a grotesque? Even if every gargoyle might indeed be grotesque, all grotesques are not gargoyles. As I mentioned earlier, if it serves as a drainpipe, it’s a gargoyle (here is one with a saber ice "teeth" making it even more fearsome - see here). A grotesque or chimera is a very similar figure on a building, but doesn’t have the purpose of leading water away from the structure as a drainage device. In North America, for example, buildings constructed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries often have decorations that everyone nonetheless refer to as gargoyles.

(image via)

These walruses decorate the Arctic Club Building in Seattle (below left); Fire Department Headquarters in Philadelphia features these firemen gargoyles (below right):

(images via 1, 2)

Strange Alien-like figures can be seen on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel in Flagstaff, Arizona (below left). The "ruffled chicken creature" (below right) is from the University of Chicago:

(images via 1, 2, 3)

Some weird character spotted on the Tours Cathedral, France (below left) - and a guy chewing his toenails, from Rufford Park, Nottingham, UK (below right):

(images credit: Gemma Longman, Andrea Schaffer)

One on top of the other (Eglise Saint-Germain L’Auxerrois, Paris):

(image via)

"The Scream": some gargoyles refuse to be silenced (Troyes, France) -

(image via)

This guy is laughing and seems to be perpetually content (Gent, Belgium):

(image via)

Listening to the wrong voice (below left):

(images via 1, 2)

This interesting looking, humorous fellow can be seen on the outer wall of the tower of York Minster:

(image credit: VT Professor)

Indeed, even Darth Vader (the Face of the Evil Empire) adorns the Washington National Cathedral, Washington - more info:

(images via, source)

Absolutely fantastic dragon, spotted in Copenhagen:

(image credit: Paul Malone)

So there you are, the first part of our series about gargoyles - those ugly, sometimes funny, invariably bizarre, at times almost demonic looking figures. Send us other examples you spotted, for inclusion in Part Two!

(Gargoyle jumping from the cathedral of Ulm - image credit: Alex)




Simon Rose is the author of science fiction and fantasy novels for children, including The Alchemist's Portrait, The Sorcerer's Letterbox, The Clone Conspiracy, The Emerald Curse, The Heretic's Tomb and The Doomsday Mask.



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Anonymous Peter said...

Nice Post.
A Dutch word for Gargoyles is 'Waterspuwer'. (translated: 'Waterspitter')

Some examples, all Belgium:
Sint-Rombauts Cathedral, Mechelen
Sint-Quintinuskathedraal, Hasselt
Sint-Pieters Railway Station
(build in 1913 for World Fair)
not strickly Gargoyle, Caermen Cloyster

Anonymous For 91 Days said...

What about the perverted Gargoyles at La Lonja in Valencia?


or the astronaut in Salamanca:


Blogger carandol said...

No collection of gargoyles would be complete without this one from the cathedral in Freiburg, Germany :-)

Anonymous Alexandre said...

Don't forget Ahmed, Lyon's cathedral latest adornment :


Blogger The Vicar of VHS said...

The New Town Hall in Munich has some great grotesques as well, for next time.

Blogger mike fox said...

great blog, and i LOVE this post! great shots.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chicago Public library in downtown chicago!!! how could you guys miss that one!!!!???? they are massive!

Blogger maczor.com said...

Thank you for your blog - watching it for almost two years now and spreading the news.

In Polish we call them pukers ;-)

Very nice are on Pragues St. Vitus Cathedral.



Blogger Ultimate Privacy said...

Wow no way dude that is just WAY too cool!


Anonymous LittleInsect said...

This handsome fellow adorns the National War Memorial building at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland


Anonymous G said...

I’m pretty confident that the English word “Gargoyle” originates phonetically from the French word “Gargouille” since gargouille is actually a French verb [gargouiller = to gurgle].


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