Have you ever wondered why countless old buildings – especially churches and holy places – have grotesque statues, known as gargoyles, emerging from their roof tops? How would you like these abominable creatures leering at you each time you walk past your own home? And why do religious places like Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris favour demonic beings rather than angelic ones for decorative purposes?
On a purely practical level, these weird and wonderful carvings are water spouts which expel rainwater from roofs. There is also a related carving known as a Chimera, which is essentially a gargoyle without the functionality. Most often, these statues truly are grotesque and for those who enjoy that sort of ornamentation, serve as purely decorative objects. But over time both variants seem to have become synonymous with the term gargoyle.
In reality, not all gargoyles are grotesque (as in the image directly above). In Egypt, they were used to wash sacred vessels, seemingly done on the flat roofs of temples. In Greek temples, gargoyles often depicted lions (above). Other gargoyle carvings have depicted monks, various people and animals, and even humourous figures!
A French legend tells of St Romanus (or Romain) (AD 631-641), the former chancellor of Merovingian King Clotaire II (the da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail come to mind at the mention of the word “Merovingian”!) who became Bishop of Rouen. According to legend, St Romanus successfully rescued the area around Rouen from a monster called Gargouille, after the beast was captured by the one person that volunteered for the job (or had nothing to lose!) – a condemned man. From that point on, it was determined that the grotesque form of some gargoyles was a great way of scaring off evil spirits – hence the ironic use of demonic and abominable carvings on churches.
After the end of the 18th Century, gargoyles began to disappear as functional fixtures and were replaced by drainpipes (or downpipes). England went as far as to pass a law saying that when it came to removing water from roof tops, drainpipes were compulsory on all modern buildings, dealing a fatal blow to the gargoyle community, although a healthy number of course survive on historic buildings.
In the United States, however, gargoyles remained popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in New York and Chicago. The stainless steel examples on the Chrysler Building have become rather famous (didn’t they make an appearance in Ghost Busters?), and Washington National Cathedral, built from 1908 in Washington DC, has an extensive collection of the like, and is adorned with limestone demons.
In Pop Culture
Gargoyles have long cemented their status in stories and tales, often characterised as winged demons which guard the buildings they are carved onto. And in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo had a comical gaggle of gargoyle friends. But that said, the image below on Notre Dame Cathedral was clearly not carved with humour in mind! Does evil really scare away evil?