Gargoyles and the Grotesque in Medieval Architecture
By Mamie Fain
Paper given at the 7th Annual CVPA Emerging Scholars & Teachers in the Arts Symposium 2011
Introduction: During the Medieval Ages religion was one of the most important aspects of daily life. Havens of worship had been around for years previous to cathedrals but during the Middle Ages one will notice that churches became increasingly grandiose. These cathedrals were built as a place of worship, the house of God and as a shelter for the relics of holy figures. This time period was dubbed by historians as the Age of Faith, therefore the churches were the most important structures (Medieval Culture). Cathedrals built during the Gothic period were by far the most decorative of all Medieval architecture. They became increasingly decorative since the Romanesque. Characteristics such as pointed arches, flying buttresses, and elaborate stained glass windows were common during this period. Another aspect of Gothic architecture are gargoyles and grotesque figures. Although such creatures can be found prior to the Gothic era, they became much more common. Not only religious imagery adorned Cathedrals, but also secular as well. These characters date back to the beliefs of the earlier pagan groups and the legends related to the towns surrounding the cathedral.
Gargoyles in its most technical term refer to waterspouts projecting from the roof of the Cathedrals. These beasts spray rain from their mouths off of the side of the roof protecting the stones from water erosion. Not all waterspouts were carved as gargoyles but in the tradition of Gothic decor, they were the preferred architectural touch. The earliest record of a gargoyle like creature was a classical Greek lion on the Acropolis in Athens, dating back to the 4th century. Sometimes the functional benefit of the gargoyles was more of a nuisance. Although such a device is good for the building, the people walking below would have to dash through the pouring water in order to exit or enter the Cathedral, therefore getting drenched by the spouts. As earlier stated, the term gargoyles really only applies to the functional creature, however over time other beasts have been dubbed with the same name. These creatures are more likely known as grotesques or chimeras, and are more so decorative than functional. These type of creatures are not used as rainspouts, but are considered more as protectors of the cathedral.