Sacred Marginalia: The Gargoyles and Buttresses of Gothic Cathedrals

By Danièle Cybulskie

There are few things which signal medieval architecture quite like buttresses. Those long, arching supports that give cathedrals like Notre Dame de Paris their distinctive silhouettes appeared on many medieval cathedrals across Europe from the twelfth century on. In addition to their practical function of taking on the weight of the ever-higher ceilings, they also served as signals to the outside world, reminding the viewer of the sanctity of the church itself and its function in the community, and offering both protection and enlightenment. These spaces told the community how to interpret the church, much like manuscript marginalia.

As Dr. Maile S. Hutterer explains in Framing the Church: The Social and Artistic Power of Buttresses in French Gothic Architecture, buttresses were a marginal space for the medieval community. Not quite as sacred as the interior of the church, but not quite as secular as the rest of the town, the space beneath and around buttresses served a variety of functions, depending on the church and the town. It could be a space filled with merchant stalls for the benefit of the town; a space built up with additional chapels for the benefit of worshippers; or a blank space leaving distance between the town and the church, used only occasionally for processions and other sacred functions.


Hutterer rightly notes that, no matter how much the average person may have spent time within the church, it’s the outside that’s most seen most often. Buttresses, then, were the perfect opportunity for the church to communicate with parishioners, before they ever set foot inside the sanctuary, itself.

Gothic cathedrals are known for their exterior sculpture, depicting saints and biblical figures. Often, these sculptures appear on the front of the church, so that parishioners can be reminded of saints and sinners on the way in. For medieval sculptors, the posts of buttresses offered an irresistible opportunity for more sacred sculpture. Angels in procession, or more examples from a seemingly endless parade of saints, gave the community the opportunity to reflect on stories, moral lessons, and on heaven, itself.

Beyond the beautiful church sculpture, with its expected artistic and educational purposes, buttresses also became the space where more unexpected creatures came to hold prominence and capture the imagination: gargoyles. Gargoyles are not just any strange figure attached to a church, but sculpted waterspouts (although the word has grown to mean both). Because few things are as dangerous to masonry as running water, the runoff from church roofs was increasingly channeled down buttresses and out the mouths of gargoyles.


As many historians, like Hutterer, have said, the origin of the word gargoyle is hard to trace, but seems to refer to the gurgling sound of the waterspout. Even more difficult to pin down, though, is the meaning of gargoyles: what exactly are these often demonic figures doing on a church?

For Hutterer, gargoyles can mean many things, but one of their functions can be to form a protective barrier around the church, encircling it and “making up part of the boundary area between sacred and profane”. Like the buttresses themselves, the gargoyles are marginal figures who sit on the borderline.

Even more interestingly, Hutterer draws parallels between the sculptures on buttresses and on the marginalia found within manuscripts. The parallels are striking: there are demons, sinners, half-human creatures, and bathroom humour to be found in both areas. (The earliest known gargoyle, according to Hutterer, empties water out of a man’s rear end on the side of Saint-Lazare Cathedral at Autun.) Both gargoyles and manuscript marginalia can be puzzling to modern viewers: what does a rabbit on a snail with a man’s face have to do with the text on the page?


In some cases, as on the exterior of Notre-Dame de l’Épine, Hutterer says, the gargoyles may tell a story of sinners being dragged to hell, or of the church’s rituals being turned upside-down, performed by animals. The ugliness of the world outside is on display in contrast to the world inside the church: a space of peace where these rituals bring reassurance and hold their full power. Hutterer also suggests that some gargoyles are meant to remind the viewer of what a particular church is known for. At Notre-Dame de l’Épine, for example, they remind the community of the church’s power to redeem the souls of stillborn children through that specific church’s relics.

Like manuscript marginalia, however, much of the purpose of the gargoyles that stare down from their protective perch on gothic buttresses is lost to us because we no longer have the key to their decryption. Their meanings, then, will have to remain on the margins of our understanding.

For more on medieval buttresses, including their function, the clash of church and community over their use, and their defensive symbolism, check out Maile S. Hutterer’s Framing the Church: The Social and Artistic Power of Buttresses in French Gothic Architecture.


You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Click here to read more articles from the Five-Minute Medievalist

Top Image: Photo by Dustin Gaffke / Flickr


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!