As a tribute to our beloved gargoyles, I want to dedicate this post to a discussion of the gargoyle as a work of art and a museum exhibit.
Studying and compiling gargoyles involves tackling a series of difficulties. This fact could be the reason why, up to now, this topic has been the subject of few studies and, sadly, undervalued. There just isn’t much interest in gargoyles, with some authors even claiming that they have been despised in architecture.
When you delve into the causes of this lack of interest, firstly you have to take practical and technical factors into account, such as the location of the gargoyles (which means applying for permits to access rooftops, with the familiar problem of getting into some dangerous or inaccessible places); the scarcity of documentation and bibliography; the difficulty of photographing more distant gargoyles, something that has now been resolved thanks to modern camera equipment with zoom lenses; plus the serious damage they continually sustain due to weather conditions (rain, humidity, wind), chemicals (pollution), biological causes (birds, moss) and human action (lack of maintenance, direct attack) which, together with the disappearance of many figures, has led to repairs, restorations and reconstructions, in some cases acceptable but in others we’ve come across real aberrations.
Secondly, there’s another cause that could have led to this lack of interest. Gargoyles, as water spouts, have been seen as functional elements with a clear, precise use, which means that they have been treated simply as decorated drainage channels that are part of a set included in an architectural project.
Fortunately – especially in the last few years – gargoyles are being studied not just as part of a building’s monumental sculpture and considered as one of the expressions of marginal art, but as a work of art in its own right.
One of the signs that gargoyles have been attracting interest and importance as artworks is that they are being displayed in museums.
Speaking about the restorations carried out in the 19th century in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, Michael Camille (1958-2002) points out that while other replaced elements, for example parts of the tympanum, were sent to the Louvre to be exhibited as great examples of French Gothic sculpture, the old weather-beaten gargoyles, regarded as functional and decorative, were left to decay as garden ornaments. It wasn’t until much later that gargoyles would become museum exhibits.
Luckily, we’re now seeing gargoyles in museums all over the world, preserved for the enjoyment of Art and Heritage lovers. Nowadays, gargoyles have artistic value and researchers from a range of disciplines (historians, architects, sculptors, etc.) study and compile them to try and rescue them from neglect and lack of interest.
My greatest aim when studying and photographing gargoyles is to confirm their value, not only in general terms, but in their individuality as a unique image containing a stylistic and iconographic importance that tells us about an era with its art forms, ways of thinking and lifestyle. The gargoyle is a unique work of art, of great sculptural beauty and worthy of study and protection.
Gargoyles in Museums
National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Greece). Image 1.
National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Greece). Image 2.
Provincial Museum (Salamanca, Spain). Image 3.
Augustins Museum (Toulouse, France). Image 4.
Augustins Museum (Toulouse, France). Image 5.
Augustins Museum (Toulouse, France). Image 6.
Augustins Museum (Toulouse, France). Image 7.
Augustins Museum (Toulouse, France). Image 8.
Espaço Museu. Paróquia da Gloria (Aveiro, Portugal). Image 9.
National Museum of Indonesia (Jakarta). Image 10.
National Museum of Indonesia (Jakarta). Image 11.
CAMILLE, M., The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame. Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
HALDANE, S., Faces on Places. About Gargoyles and Other Stone Creatures, New York, The Viking Press, 1980.
MORALES BAENA, A. M., Las gárgolas del claustro del monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes de Toledo, Tesis inédita dirigida por M. Prieto Prieto, Departamento de Pintura-Restauración. Facultad de Bellas Artes. Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 1994 (leída en 1995).
Doctora en Historia del Arte. Investigadora especializada en el estudio de las gárgolas.