Gargoyles provoke all sorts of reactions and feelings when we look at them, and not just because of the figures they depict, but also because most of them are strikingly expressive.
Functionality aside, gargoyles are pure image.
Ugliness is one of the characteristics associated with images of gargoyles with terrible, disturbing expressions, something that’s normally seen in all kinds of demons and monsters.
There are a quite few literary references to ugliness. For example, Saint Agustine (4th-5th century) says that the body’s beauty comes from the harmony of its parts. For him, the lack of that harmony offends and this deformity will be corrected by the Creator, using ways that only He knows. “In the resurrection all ugliness will be made beauty”, he says.
Plotinus (3rd century) in his Enneads (I, 6) also states: “Since everything void of form is by nature fitted for its reception, as far as it is destitute of reason and form it is base and separate from the divine reason. And this is absolute baseness”.
According to John Ruskin (1819-1900), beautiful shapes are taken from Nature, so things not taken directly from it “are necessarily ugly”.
Michael Camille said that there is nothing so terrifying than that which we cannot see. This leads him to think that people in the Middle Ages tried to directly confront the devil as a fact of life, making him visible, in the belief that by openly depicting him, he could be defeated.
Some authors talk about the meaning or symbolic purpose of gargoyle images as a form of protection and of intimidation, both of which are linked to this amazing expressiveness.
In terms of this protective purpose, Ernst Gombrich points to the idea, which has existed in various cultures, of “guardians” that serve to protect temples, homes and other buildings, giving them an apotropaic function. Since Antiquity, figures have been placed on the outside of buildings as protection, like a talisman (like the Egyptian Sphinx or the Assyrian winged bull guardians). With this idea of needing protection, you would expect these figures to have a terrible, demonic appearance, as this makes them seem more dangerous. And this entails giving them vividly horrible facial expressions.
Their intimidating function is to provoke fear. This idea of causing fear might also explain why some gargoyles have very expressive and threatening expressions. As Janetta Rebold Benton says, they are like a scarecrow that scares the devil away and keeps the inside of the building safe.
Their role as a form of protection and of intimidation is linked to terrible, disturbing expressions and gestures. However, you can also see other expressions on gargoyles that point to all kinds of other emotions, such as pain, pity, anger, suffering, fear, laughter and so on.
House of Shells in Salamanca (Spain).
Bordeaux Cathedral (France).
Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Church of Our Lady in Trier (Germany).
Palencia Cathedral (Spain).
Cathedral of María Inmaculada in Vitoria (Spain).
CAMILLE, M., El ídolo gótico. Ideología y creación de imágenes en el arte medieval, Madrid, Ediciones Akal, S. A., 2000.
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.
Obras de San Agustín XVII. La Ciudad de Dios, Vol. 2, libros XIII-XXII, Madrid, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1965, XXII, 19, 2.
PORFIRIO, Vida de Plotino. PLOTINO, Enéadas I-II, Madrid, Editorial Gredos, S. A. Biblioteca Clásica Gredos, 57, 1992.
REBOLD BENTON, J., Holy Terrors. Gargoyles on medieval buildings, New York, Abbeville Press, 1997.
RUSKIN, J., Las siete lámparas de la arquitectura, Barcelona, Editorial Alta Fulla, 1997.
Doctora en Historia del Arte. Investigadora especializada en el estudio de las gárgolas.