Today we’re going to Luxembourg to discover some of its gargoyles, specifically the ones on the National Library.
The Luxembourg National Library was founded in 1899, replacing the Municipal Library dating back to 1798. In addition to holding a huge number of books, periodicals and documents (close to a million), the Library manages legal deposits and copyright matters across Luxembourg.
The gargoyles on the National Library building are striking and very distinctive. They are human, demonic and Green Man heads. These types of heads are reminiscent of protective and guardian images on buildings. Let’s remember that Gombrich talks about these apotropaic depictions linked to the need for protection, making it normal for them to take on terrible, demonic forms so as to appear more disturbing and threatening. Art historian Otto Kurz talks about images with a ring in their mouths like a door knocker and sets out his theory on how they spread from Greece into China, via Rome, before later returning to Islamic and Western art. They usually consist of lion‘s heads, as traditional guardians of the homes and possessions of the living and the dead. As we know, for Gombrich gargoyles are a clear example of apotropaic magic, and these Luxembourg gargoyles appear to preserve this kind of tradition.
Continuing with research on these heads, in the Middle Ages there was a belief about this type of door knocker: if someone who was being chased managed to get to the door knocker of a sanctuary and held onto it, they were supposedly protected by the church and their pursuers would be unable to catch them. Classic authors also described some details of the Celtic worship of human heads and how the Celts erected heads on the pillars and posts of doors or churches, covering them with gold and silver.
Seen from the outside, the library has five gargoyles. The first is a devil with upward curved horns and a generous curly beard. There are also two human heads, one with curly hair and the other with leafy hair, moustache and a lank beard. The two other heads are Green Men, one with his tongue sticking out.
The Green Man is a representation of a face surrounded by or made from leaves, which are sometimes shown growing out of his mouth or face. According to Rebold Benton, the Green Man is a symbol of fertility, rebirth and nature, inherited from the pagan imaginary and later adopted by the Christian faith as a symbol of carnal desire and other capital sins. The masks or leafy heads surrounded by vegetation appeared in the Classic period and were connected with the cult of Dionysus, which saw the god as a deity of fertility and vegetation. It later took on a new funerary meaning, becoming a symbol of immortality and resurrection.
You can see that one of the gargoyles is sticking its tongue out. Link tells us that this is a kind of jibe that could be a sign of disrespect and scorn towards the sacred; a common gesture that represents evil beings and people of low class. Some authors think that the stuck out, protruding tongue comes from the classic Gorgon, although it also appears in depictions of Bes ― a hideous deity originally from Nubia and Somalia that may have emerged in Egypt or Mesopotamia ― probably known by Coptic monks. An extraordinary number of grotesque heads are shown with their tongues out. We can only guess at the exact meaning of this gesture. It might be intended simply to heighten the crude and threatening appearance of these heads, which often also have foliage coming out of their mouths. However, the meaning may be more subtle, especially if these images appear on religious buildings. It is generally thought that exhibiting the genitalia was to thwart and keep the pursuing forces of evil at bay. The sticking out tongue may have been thought to have similar powers, so it could be that these severe and terrifying heads looking intently downwards from high up on sacred buildings may have been intended not to intimidate the faithful but to keep demonic forces under control. For Camille, this is a horrifying gesture of offence commonly seen in many Medieval faces, based on the apotropaic power of the classic Gorgon, where the tongue is a clear substitute for the penis and its power to prevent the evil eye. A small protuberance sliding out of the creature’s moist mouth defines it as something masculine; the tongue was a dangerous, obscene organ. Rebold Benton relates the gesture of sticking the tongue out to Satan, who sticks his tongue out to make fun of his victims. A prominent tongue also symbolises traitors, heretics and blasphemers. Another interpretation could be that of sticking the tongue out to keep the devil away.
In addition to their expressiveness, the gargoyles on the library are exceptionally well crafted. The facial features are large (nose, mouth, teeth) and painstakingly carved (eyes with eyelids and pupils, curls, leaves). Some beautiful and surprising gargoyles that we discovered in this lovely, fascinating country.
Images of gargoyles
CAMILLE, M., The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame. Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
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.
KENAAN-KEDAR, N. y OVADIAH, A., The Metamorphosis of Marginal Images: From Antiquity to Present Time, Tel Aviv University. The Yolanda and David Katz Faculty of the Arts. Department of Art History, 2001.
LINK, L., El Diablo. Una máscara sin rostro, Madrid, Editorial Síntesis, S. A., 2002.
REBOLD BENTON, J., Holy Terrors. Gargoyles on medieval buildings, New York, Abbeville Press, 1997.
SHERIDAN, R. y ROSS, A., Grotesques and Gargoyles. Paganism in the Medieval Church, London, David & Charles: Newton Abbot, 1975.