Gargoyles are architectural structures in the form of carved statues, usually made of stone, protruding from buildings and monuments of historical interest. They are constructed with a channel of some type formed into them along the top and through the head to divert rain water from the building, thus protecting the mortar joints and masonry from erosion.
Gargoyles protrude outwards to send the water spouting away from the face of the building, usually from the mouth of the mythical creature that the gargoyle represents.
The famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has many gargoyles protruding from the roof area, or at least it did have before it was ravaged by fire in 2019.
The medieval churches are the main residences of these stone artefacts. Much work went into these buildings in the form of their stone carvings of all depictions and the elaborate columns, pillars and lintels. The intricate shapes and aesthetics of the buildings were something to be appreciated and admired also, as were the wooden structures such as the vaulted ceilings and internal ornate corbels that the timber roof structure sat upon.The vaulted ceilings lay open and were structurally engineered to carry the heavy load and stresses. They also had to look pleasing to the eye also and incorporated much craftsmanship in their making and appearance. Take a look up inside any church and you’ll see the results.
Gargoyles have many variations. A lion’s head with its mouth open was a common feature. This varied from cathedral to cathedral and many took on a distorted form. Later gargoyles became a mix match of many creatures and forms. In medieval times their appearances morphed into many forms that always seemed to take on a sinister or terrifying look.
Another form of gargoyle is the chimera. These were not for diverting water from the building but for ornamental purposes. They are commonly known as grotesques but are classed as gargoyles due to certain similarities.
The true form of a chimera can be seen taken from the description in Greek mythology as follows:
• Chimera: a monster from Greek mythology that is fire breathing, has a lions head, a goats body and a snakes tale.
In ancient Greek mythology, the chimera was feared as a bad omen when sighted. The term “chimera” has become to symbolise any mythical creature that has two or more mixed body parts taken from various animals.
Gargoyles quite often lent themselves to the chimera or variations of that form.
THe Church View
Not only were gargoyles used for diverting water away from buildings, they also had another purpose. Some say to ward off evil.
It’s strange to think that the image of such a grotesque figure could do this, when the figure itself seems to er on the side of evil, with its unusual shape and contortions, it’s unnatural hybrid configuration and it’s medieval demonic looks that some gargoyles portrayed. With so many despotic looking stone statuettes staring down at the congregation from high above their heads, it’s a wonder they didn’t refuse to enter the churches of that era.
The church hierarchy of the time sort various ways to coheres their flock into repenting of the wickedness of their ways. The church, as a building, offered spiritual security to the people of the middle ages that was willing to seek it. Outside the church was all the evil and sin to be tempted by. The church represented a sanctuary to the masses, a safe haven.
The gargoyles were to remind them of the evil in the outside world. The message they were saying was that it was better to be inside the sanctuary of the church than on the outside, where temptation, sin and wickedness lies. A form of converting the pagans to Christianity.
This was a ploy adopted by the Christian church in medieval times. One that put fear into the hearts of the people in the hope of them attending church en-mass.
Gargoyles go back long before Christianity though.
In Olympus, in ancient Greece, The Temple of Zeus has many lion shaped water spouts and the ancient Egyptians build and carved many gargoyles in the form of lions.
The Temple of Zeus was built between 470 BC – 456 BC. Built mainly of limestone with much marble used also to incorporate the finer finishes. Many sculptures were of marble, including its 102 lion – headed gargoyles.
The ancient Egyptians preferred the lion form also, although other forms were constructed such as hooded snakes and demon types. The Egyptian gargoyles were mainly to keep their temples safe from Seth, a god of chaos, not for diverting rainwater from the buildings, which would have been less important in a desert climate.
The more modern gargoyles, that we are accustomed to seeing on our churches and such, came into being round about the 12th century AD.
The noise of water rushing through the gargoyle is said to resemble a gargling sound.
The word gargoyle is from the French word gargouille, which means throat.
If we put the two together we get the image of someone with their head thrown back, their mouth in the shape of a funnel and blowing air from their lungs through a liquid at the back of their throat, to ease a sore throat usually. What they are said to be doing is gargling. Hence the word gargoyle.