Have you visited a medieval cathedral such as Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey, or the incredibly tall cathedral in Cologne, Germany? I love the soaring arches, ornate architecture, stained glass windows, and the quiet, contemplative spirit inside. In fact, I think they’re altogether lovely, except for one thing: the gargoyles. It just makes no sense. Why in the world would the Christians of the Middle Ages put such evil-looking monstrosities on the very buildings they were dedicating to the worship of God?
Being curious, I had to find out. The first thing I learned is that gargoyles aren’t just decorations—they serve a purpose. The architects didn’t want rain running off the roof and down the stonework, eroding the mortar and dousing the people below, so they included gutters and downspouts to direct the water away from the building. While they were at it, they turned these downspouts into fanciful animals, or gargoyles. During a rainstorm, the gargoyles turn into fountains, with the water coming out of their open mouths. In fact, the word “gargoyle” comes from gargouille, a French word meaning throat or gullet.
(A gargoyle that is merely decorative, but doesn’t carry water, is more properly called a grotesque, a boss, or, when it is a combination of two or more animals, a chimera.)
So gargoyles are practical. That still doesn’t explain why the designers sculpted such awful looking creatures! After all, we have downspouts, and they simply carry water. (I wonder what our HOA would say to a bunch of grinning demons spitting from the corners of our roof?)
It turns out that gargoyles didn’t originate with the middle ages. They date as far back as architecture, with the ancient Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans all creating animal-shaped decorations (often lion heads)to carry off water from the roofs of their buildings. When it came time to build the cathedrals, some sort of animal downspout was the expected norm.
But why make them so scary? There are a number of reasons. Gargoyles and grotesques were supposed to protect those inside by frightening away any evil spirits or demons that might try to invade the building. They also served to remind the congregants, most of whom were illiterate, of the pervasiveness of the devil and his minions, the reality of original sin, and one’s need for the protection of the church. Just as many oil paintings of the period portray the final judgment and condemnation of the damned, gargoyles were meant to depict the torments of Hell. In other words, gargoyles illustrated verses such as 1 Peter 5:8, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
As I looked at more and more examples of gargoyles and grotesques, I realized that not all of them depicted demonic creatures. Some are monks, or they resemble the family members or patrons of the stonemasons who made them. Others are more whimsical than frightening; a few even made me laugh! I bet that the stonemasons, tired of being constrained by tradition and propriety, were happy for a place where they could be more creative, tongue firmly in cheek. One website asserts that, just like snowflakes, no two gargoyles are alike.
Finally, I learned that I’m not the only one who was disturbed by the presence of gargoyles on church buildings. Here’s what St. Bernard of Clairvaux had to say back in the 12th century:
What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent’s head, there a fish with a quadruped’s head, then again an animal half horse, half goat… Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.
Photos from Pixabay.com