This post starts the study of one of the most fascinating figures decorating gargoyles. It’s none other than the devil himself, an ever present and essential image on churches and cathedrals, and one we also see on other buildings in civil architecture.
I discussed the meaning of the devil when I looked at symbolism and in this first post on the iconography of the devil, we’ll be seeing some of the characteristic traits of the devil’s image, features that repeat themselves in the vast majority of gargoyles.
Depictions of the devil take on a number of appearances. There’s a wide variety of forms, undoubtedly due to the fact that ugliness offers artists so many more options than beauty. Rebold Benton tells us that this diversity of demonic forms might be related to the devil’s metamorphic abilities.
Apart from the devil’s familiar features like horns, tail, wings and pointed ears, gargoyles also display a number of other physical traits, including a huge deformed mouth, sometimes with enormous teeth or fangs, marked windpipes, crests, shaggy or flame-like hair, protuberances and flaps of skin, claws and pincers, cloven hooves, goatee beard and so on. The combination of forms is immense and some gargoyles have superb devils, sculpted by magnificent artists who poured all their fantasy and creative imagination into them.
House of Shells in Salamanca (Spain).
Of the features I’ve listed here, wings are particularly interesting; they’re associated with the devil (although he can also appear without them) as they suggest the idea of fallen angel. From the 9th to the 13th century, the devil was portrayed with feathered wings like those of angels, but darker and shorter. And around the 14th century we start to see the devil with bat’s wings, as described by Dante in his Inferno.
Cathedral of St. Michel in Carcassonne (France).
The flame-like, shaggy hair, an image of bestiality, savagery and power, can be seen already in classic art. Some authors think that these images come from the greasy, dishevelled hair of barbarians.
Lonja in Valencia (Spain).
Some gargoyles of devils carry objects too, with the most common being a stake. At first, the devil was shown holding a trident and this was later replaced by a grapnel or pitchfork, an instrument used to torture criminals and heretics. You can see some gargoyles with a kind of rod, probably referring to the grapnel used in torture chambers and with which criminals were beaten while naked in the streets. This was something that the artists had probably seen for themselves and then shown in their artworks, for example in medieval depictions of the final judgement.
Salamanca Cathedral (Spain).
Some devils are also accompanied by small evil creatures, or we might see them holding or trampling on human heads or figures – possibly sinners – often symbolising the struggle between good and evil.
Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
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.
Doctora en Historia del Arte. Investigadora especializada en el estudio de las gárgolas.