“What do they mean, those long-necked gargoyles who howl from the heights?… No time and no people have ever conceived more terrible spectres; they are part wolf, part caterpillar, part bat. They are realistic in a way that makes them more frightening. In the garden behind Notre Dame in Paris we may still see a few of them, abandoned to the ravages of time. They resemble unevolved monsters of the Tertiary age, crumbling bit by bit and preparing to disappear…” Émile Mâle.
León Cathedral (Spain). Image 1.
In previous posts we’ve seen what gargoyles are and what categories they fall into. But, leaving aside their function as a water drainage spout, what symbolism do images of gargoyles have? What’s meant by all those strange and disturbing creatures we see decorating gutters?
A number of historians and authors in other disciplines have put forward different theories on the symbolic meaning of gargoyles. Let’s take a look at the most interesting ones.
The first theory is that of attributing a protective function to gargoyles, what Gombrich calls apotropaic, and this is what talked about when we looked at expressiveness. As we said back then, this idea of creatures protecting buildings or entrances like a talisman or guardian warding off evil had already existed since Antiquity (the Egyptian Sphinx, Assyrian bulls, temples in Asia and pre-Colombian America, etc.).
Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum (Nanjing, China). Image 2.
The Forbidden City (Beijing, China). Image 3.
Another theory, defended by Gombrich, is the consideration of the gargoyle as drôlerie. Just like in the margins of manuscripts, the gargoyle appears as a drôlerie, that is, like a peculiarity or a prank that decorates buildings in the same way as it decorates texts. So gargoyles, like drôleries, would have marginal meaning and would simply serve as ornaments on gutters, using images connected with historical, social, moral or psychological factors that were part of the collective imaginary in the Middle Ages (creatures inherited from mythology and Antiquity, fear of death and of the devil, vices and virtues, bestiaries, witchcraft, the interest in science, etc.), or in the period when they were carved.
Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 4.
The Cathedral of Xujiahui in Shanghai (China). Image 5.
In religious buildings, the gargoyle’s purpose is also to intimidate. We spoke about this before, but we’ll take a closer look. The idea behind this purpose is to provoke fear. This function is related to ideas such as the one that gargoyles can represent souls condemned for their sins, banned from entering the church, eternally punished to be intercepted on their way to hell and turned into stone. Also some figures like the man-beast or wild man could symbolise sinners who have been transformed into creatures after sinning. Others have suggested that gargoyles depict agents of the devil acting on behalf of God, punishing the wicked and thereby legitimising their ugly coexistence with the beauty of the church. All these warnings are aimed at believers, so they can see the results of their failings, reminding passers-by not only of the consequences of sin but also of the ever constant threat of the devil and his machinations.
Bordeaux Cathedral (France). Image 6.
Bordeaux Cathedral (France). Image 7.
Continuing with religious buildings, it’s also said that gargoyles may have been used to raise attendance at church by attracting people’s attention. Or perhaps that gargoyles are relics of Celtic paganism, used to attract pagans into the church to be converted.
Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 8.
On the educational function that images of gargoyles may have – as we know another monumental sculpture has – Rebold Benton says that, seen together as a whole, gargoyles don’t appear to have the intention of educating the medieval populace. The huge variety of forms suggests that they weren’t used as an instructional device. It’s also unlikely that gargoyles were created for a small educated group within the Church hierarchy, as they were there for everyone to see (clergy and lay people) and they were also placed on civic buildings.
Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 9.
Following on with other speculations about the symbolism of gargoyle images, we get to some of the more extravagant, somewhat naive and even absurd examples.
English architect and historian Bligh Bond (1864-1945) suggested that gargoyles symbolise evil and that they were designed to show that the Church turned evil into good.
Plus, the iconographer and abbot Auguste Auber tells us in his History and Theory of Symbolism (1871) that gargoyles represent devils conquered by the Church, which puts them to work on menial tasks such as carrying water.
It’s also said that they can be traced to some passages in the Bible, in vestiges of the prehistoric Silurian period (dinosaur fossils) and some even see their origins in the constellations.
On civic constructions and buildings, gargoyles usually have an ornamental purpose. On some buildings they might also hint at the power of the lord or of the family that owned it. On the same theme, they may be related to heraldry.
New City Hall in Munich (Germany). Image 10.
The symbolism of gargoyle images has intrigued and occupied historians and authors in a number of disciplines and eras, and has undoubtedly inspired writers and artists in all areas of the arts throughout history. The mystery of their meaning and the mere possibility that they possess hidden symbolism unknown to us feeds the fascination we feel for these amazing and magnificent figures.
Burgos Cathedral (Spain). Image 11.
BURBANK BRIDAHAM, L., The Gargoyle Book. 572 examples from Gothic Architecture, New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 2006.
CALLE CALLE, F. V., “Notas sobre algunas gárgolas de la Catedral de Plasencia”, Coloquios Históricos de Extremadura, 2003.
CAMILLE, M., The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame. Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
FERNÁNDEZ RUIZ, B., De Rabelais a Dalí. La imagen grotesca del cuerpo, Valencia, Universitat de València, 2004.
GOMBRICH, E. H., El sentido del orden. Estudio sobre la psicología de las artes decorativas, vol. IX de las Conferencias Wrightsman, Madrid, Editorial Debate, S. A., 1999.
REBOLD BENTON, J., “Gargoyles: Animal Imagery and Artistic Individuality in Medieval Art”, Animals in the Middle Age. A Book of Essays, (1996), pp. 147-165; Holy Terrors. Gargoyles on medieval buildings, New York, Abbeville Press, 1997.
TRUE GASCH, W., Guide to Gargoyles and Other Grotesques, Washington, Washington National Cathedral, 2003.