Gargoyles are architectural structures. Made of stone, protruding from buildings and monuments of historical interest. Built with a channel of some type formed along the top and through the head to divert rainwater from the building. Thus protecting the mortar joints and masonry from erosion.
Gargoyles protrude outward, sending the water spouting away from the face of the building, from the mouth of the mythical creature the gargoyle represents.
The famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has many gargoyles. All seen protruding from the roof area. Or at least this was the case before fire ravaged it in 2019.
The medieval churches are the principal residences of these stone artefacts. Much work went into these buildings, in such forms as their stone carvings. The elaborate columns, pillars and lintels. The intricate shapes and aesthetics of the buildings are an appreciation. As are the wooden structures. Such as vaulted ceilings and internal ornate corbels, stone corbels that the timber roof structure sat upon. The vaulted ceilings lay open and engineered to carry the heavy load and stresses. Designed to please the eye, so also incorporated much craftsmanship into their making and appearance. Glance 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. They varied from cathedral to cathedral. 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. They always had a sinister or terrifying presence.
Another form of gargoyle is the chimera. Its purpose is not for diverting water from the building, but strictly ornamental. Referred to as grotesques but classed as gargoyles because of certain similarities.
The authentic form of a chimera comes from the description in Greek mythology:
· Chimera: a monster from Greek mythology that is fire breathing, has a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a snake’s tale.
In ancient Greek mythology, they fear the chimera as a bad omen when sighted. The term “chimera” came to symbolise any mythical creature with two or more mixed body parts of various animals.
Gargoyles often lent themselves to the chimera or variations of that form.
· Some carvings of gargoyles take on the image of mixed animals (chimeras). Some carved as half human and half animal.
Apart from diverting water away from a building, they also supported another purpose: to ward off evil.
It is odd to think that a grotesque figure could do this. When the figure itself seems to err on the side of evil.
With their unusual shape and contortions, their unnatural hybrid configuration, and their medieval demonic looks that some gargoyles portray, it’s easy to think of them as threatening. 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.
Church hierarchy of the time sort various ways to coerce their flock into repenting. The church building offered spiritual security for those seeking it. Outside the church lurked temptation and sin. Religion and the church represented a sanctuary to the masses, a haven.
Gargoyles reminded them of the evil in the outside world. Sending out the message, it is better to be inside the sanctuary of the church rather than on the outside, where temptation, sin and wickedness lie. A means to sway the pagans over to Christianity.
A ploy adopted by the Christian church in medieval times to 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. The ancient Egyptians build and carved many gargoyles as lions.
Built between 470 BC – 456 BC, the Temple of Zeus comprised limestone and had much marble used also to incorporate the finer finishes. Many sculptures of marble included its 102 lion – headed gargoyles.
The ancient Egyptians preferred the lion form also, although they constructed other forms. Such were as hooded snakes and demon types. The Egyptian gargoyles were to keep their temples safe from Seth, a god of chaos. They were not for diverting rainwater from the buildings. This would have been less important in a desert climate.
More modern gargoyles, seen in our churches and such, came into being round about the 12th century AD.
Noise of water rushing through the gargoyle resembles a gargling sound.
The word gargoyle is from the French word Gargouille, which means throat.
If someone throws their head back, their mouth represents the shape of a funnel. Then, if they blow air from their lungs through a liquid at the back of their throat. What they are doing is gargling. Hence the word gargoyle.
D. Marsden © 2020