From time to time, you come across unusual gargoyles, figures with heads and faces that look different. They’re not common, which just makes them all the more surprising and fascinating. I’m referring here to gargoyles with mask-like faces, or which are holding a mask as a significant element of the figure.


máscaras y gárgolas

Gargoyle with mask-like face. Ciudad Rodrigo Cathedral (Spain).


Let’s look at some ideas about the meaning of masks in history and art. Grotesque faces depicted in art often evoke masks. These superficial coverings seem to conceal reality, and mocking or sarcastic masks were often used in mediaeval feasts (Feast of Fools, Carnival). People in the Middle Ages knew about masks in antiquity thanks to the works of Terence (second century BC) and to sarcophagi. Masked gorgons appeared in classical coats of arms, used as an apotropaic or protective image. Camille has contended that these might have had a different meaning in the Middle Ages, indicating danger in a similar way to the faces that appear on the stomach or genitals of devils.


Gargoyles and Masks Gárgola del Monasterio de San Martín Pinario Santiago de Compostela 28

Devil with mask. San Martín Pinario Monastery (Santiago de Compostela, Spain).


gárgola arte historia

Woman expulsing mask-like head. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).


With its frequently mask-like appearance, there is one image above all that seems linked to gargoyles due to its similarity to some of them. This is the green man, who is depicted with a human head surrounded by leaves and branches which sometimes even sprout from his mouth or nose. The green man is a symbol of fertility, rebirth and nature inherited from pagan imagery that was subsequently appropriated by Christianity as a symbol of lust and other capital sins. Leafy masks and heads surrounded by lush vegetation appeared in the classical period in relation to the cult of Dionysus, who was worshipped as the god of fertility and vegetation. Later, he acquired funerary connotations, becoming a symbol of immortality or resurrection.

gárgola catedral gótico

In addition, some of the gargoyles in the Cathedral of Salamanca present the appearance of what I have called the “plant monster”. These have marvellous plant ornamentation with monstrous or devil-like elements, where leaves and flowers form facial features, spirals, horns and wings, and sometimes the leaves form mask-like faces.


Plant monsters. Salamanca Cathedral (Spain).


gargolas catedral Salamanca


To conclude, I want to show you some of the beautiful masks in the lavabo at the Monastery of Batalha, where there are faces that look like the green man. Masks with grotesque faces were widely used in Gothic sculpture and other arts due to the influence of Villard d’Honnecourt, who revived the Graeco-Roman tradition of plant masks. Many of the heads with leaves may have their origins in the head of Silvanus, and their hair, beards and even faces are transformed into plants filling the space, similar to the Renaissance grotesque. The hair and beards are almost always formed of leaves that entwine among all the other elements.


gárgola green man

Mask with the head of the green man. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).


gárgola hombre verde

Mask with the head of the green man. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).




Bibliography consulted

CAMILLE, M., Image on the Edge. The Margins of Medieval Art, London, Reaktion Books Ltd., 2008.

GARCÍA VEGA, B., El Grabado del Libro Español. Siglos XV-XVI-XVII. (Aportación a su estudio con los fondos de las bibliotecas de Valladolid), Tomos I y II, Valladolid, Institución Cultural Simancas. Diputación Provincial de Valladolid, 1984.

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.

REBOLD BENTON, J., Holy Terrors. Gargoyles on medieval buildings, New York, Abbeville Press, 1997.


Art, History and Research

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