Looking at them as a passer-by, I’ve always been really attracted to gargoyles. This is undoubtedly the main reason why I chose to write a PhD thesis on them. However, as an art historian, I’m passionate about art in general, especially medieval art.
Historians usually have a passion for study and research. When I was writing my thesis, I used technical and systematic analysis and an applied methodology, plus I researched the literature, trying to compile as much material as possible on the subject. I must confess that this bibliographic and documentary study was fascinating, although (and all you historians and researchers in general will understand this) it was a never-ending process, because as my work progressed, new doors kept opening up to further investigation.
As an art historian, and especially as a lover of research and history, in this second post I want to share a few extracts from the literature references included in my thesis, by authors (some of whom are essential reading) who are useful as a starting-point for delving into the fabulous world of images of gargoyles and their iconography.
“The Gothic Middle Ages was not only moving towards the order of life, realism and the West, it also had its surrealist side, its artifices and exoticisms. A more tormented Middle Ages, inhabited by monsters and miracles is reinstated and developed as part of the evangelical and humanist Medieval period”. Jurgis Baltrušaitis.
Grotesque. Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 1.
Las Dueñas Convent (Salamanca, Spain). Capital in the Cloister. Image 2.
“I didn’t know that a maelstrom always inhabits a Gothic cathedral; in fact I had hardly set foot inside when my very weight on earth was snatched away from me… Suddenly, from all sides, from the lofty dark corners, from the bewildering glass panes of the windows, from the capitals, from the remote codes, the endless edges, a myriad of fantastic beings descended on me, like imaginary, excessive animals, gryphons, gargoyles, monstrous hounds, triangular birds; others, inorganic figures, but which in their exaggerated contortions, in their twisted appearance, seemed to be incipient animals. And all this came on me incredibly fast, as if, knowing that I was going to enter at that very minute on that very afternoon, each thing had been waiting in its corner or its angle, eyes alert, neck craned, muscles tensed, ready to leap into the void. I can give a more common detail to that bedlam, to that mobilised pandemonium, to that roving and aggressive unreality; each thing, in fact, came to me in a frenzied airborne rush, panting, urgent, as if to give me, in quick, broken, eager sentences, news of goodness knows what terrible, immense, unique, decisive event that had taken place up there just moments earlier. And with that, with the same speed, as if their mission had been accomplished, each far-fetched beast, impossible bird, each living angular line, disappeared, perhaps back to its lair, to its perch, to its corner. They all vanished as if their life had been extinguished in an act of mimicry”. José Ortega y Gasset.
Gargoyles and Grotesques. Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 3.
Grotesque. León Cathedral (Spain). Image 4.
“Hybrid monsters [the gargoyles], signifying the vomiting forth of sin ejected from the sanctuary, reminding the passer-by who sees them pouring forth the water from the gutter, that when seen outside the church, they are the voidance of the spirit, the cloaca of the soul”. Joris-Karl Huysmans (The Cathedral, 1898).
Gargoyles. Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 5.
“No symbolism can explain these monstrous creatures of the cathedrals. The bestiaries are silent. Such creatures came from the imaginations of the people. These gargoyles, resembling the vampires of the cemeteries and the dragons vanquished by ancient bishops, survived in the depths of people’s consciousness; they came from ancient fireside tales”. Émile Mâle.
Gargoyles. Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 6.
“The gargoyle is all body and no soul, a pure projection of filth, the opposite of the angel whose body is weightless and orifice-less”. Michael Camille.
Gargoyle. Salamanca Cathedral (Spain). Image 7.
“What these insistent monsters have taught me is the impossibility of viewing the art of the Middle Ages without looking past and through the 19th century… The stony regard of these ghosts that have returned to haunt us from the medieval past is, I shall argue, the gaze of modernity and its disenchantment with the world”. Michael Camille.
Gargoyle. Palencia Cathedral (Spain). Image 8.
“If an artist cannot create the perfect form, perhaps the next best thing is to create the perfect deformity”… Lewis A. Lawson.
Gargoyle. Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 9.
Monsters, demons, fabulous and extraordinary creatures… Unbelievable and superb images of gargoyles. Because, its functional purpose aside, the gargoyle is pure image. It provokes a range of feelings and emotions when we look at it.
It’s beauty and ugliness. It’s art and expressiveness.
BALTRUŠAITIS, J., La Edad Media fantástica. Antigüedades y exotismos en el arte gótico, Madrid, Ediciones Cátedra, S. A., 1987.
CAMILLE, M., Image on the Edge. The Margins of Medieval Art, London, Reaktion Books Ltd., 2008.
CAMILLE, M., The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame. Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
DI RENZO, A., American Gargoyles: Flannery O´Connor and the Medieval Grotesque, Carbondale (Illinois), Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.
ORTEGA Y GASSET, J., “Arte de este mundo y del otro” en “Deshumanización del arte”, Revista de Occidente. Colección El arquero (1958), pp. 101-107.