By Danièle Cybulskie
I love gargoyles. While there are so many beautiful pieces of sculpture that have survived the Middle Ages, like so many people, I’m drawn to those strange and ugly funny faces, not least of all because I can’t figure out what they’re for.
True gargoyles are the faces of the waterspouts that drained the roofs of (mainly gothic) churches and cathedrals. In Artifacts from Medieval Europe, James B. Tschen-Emmons traces our English word back to Old French “gargouille” or “throat”, possibly stemming from the Latin for “throat”: gurgulio. This definitely makes sense in terms of naming those waterspouts, but some of the creatures we call gargoyles show up as lone statues, as well.
People have long puzzled over the exact meaning of gargoyles, especially their place on religious houses. It’s possible that they were meant to be protectors who scare away evil spirits, which might explain why they are often clawed and making scary faces. They could also be reminders of the torments which awaited sinners in the afterlife; after all, medieval churches frequently featured scenes of damnation as well as redemption. Then again, they could just as easily be reminders of God’s love for all creatures, odd though they may seem to human eyes.
In his own brief survey of gargoyles, Tschen-Emmons quotes a great passage from Bernard of Clairvaux’s Apology to Abbot William of Thierry, which is too great not to share:
Again, in the cloisters, what is the meaning of those ridiculous monsters, of that deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity, before the very eyes of the brethren while reading? What are disgusting monkeys there for, or satyrs, or ferocious lions, or monstrous centaurs, or spotted tigers, or fighting soldiers, or huntsmen sounding the bugle? … In fact, such an endless variety of forms appears everywhere, that it is more pleasant to read in the stonework than in books, and to spend the day in admiring these oddities than in meditating on the law of God. Good God! If we are not ashamed of these absurdities, why do we not grieve at the cost of them? (p.71)
It seems that not even St. Bernard could be sure what gargoyles were for, but he was definitely sure he disapproved of them!
While gargoyles are synonymous with the Middle Ages, the most famous gargoyles in the world – those adorning the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris – were created in the nineteenth century in order to give the church a more gothic feel. Although Notre Dame is a medieval building, it originally had no gargoyles (except in Disney’s Middle Ages). For a detailed look at Notre Dame’s gargoyles, check out Michael Camille’s The Gargoyles of Notre Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity.
Whether you love gothic, neo-gothic, or just cartoons from the nineties, gargoyles carry an appeal that has lasted for nearly a thousand years, as those distracted monks of St. Bernard’s will attest. It seems those funny faces will keep their secrets, and their appeal, for another thousand years to come.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Photo by Aitor Aguirregabiria / Flickr