In Christian iconography, the snake is linked with the idea of evil and the devil. “Every creature that moves along the ground is to be regarded as unclean” (Lev. 11, 41-42). In the book of Genesis it’s a symbol of carnal desire and the devil.
The snake appears many times in gargoyles: trapping, biting, on the end of tails or feet, etc. According to Rebold Benton, figures with snakes winding around them could be a reference to the snake coiled round the tree in the Garden of Eden.
Sometimes devils are seen with phallic snakes instead of penises. The depiction of the phallus is a trait linked to the devil and to some images of satyrs in which they are shown exposing it. This could also signify greater power and may date back to Bes, a god in ancient times, as pro-phallic portrayals have been around since the 4th century BC.
Many gargoyles feature gastrocephalic devils. The head in the belly can convey the idea that the centre of the brain has descended to the lower parts of the body. Émile Mâle refers to the displacement of intelligence to serve the basest of instincts. You can also find devils with two or more faces or heads on other parts of the body (chest, back, feet). Castelli says that “two or three faces is a way of alluding to something that a consistency cannot express, if it is only what a face shows: solely the mask of a face“.
BURBANK BRIDAHAM, L., The Gargoyle Book. 572 examples from Gothic Architecture, New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 2006.
CASTELLI, E., De lo demoníaco en el arte. Su significación filosófica, Santiago de Chile, Ediciones de la Universidad de Chile, 1963.
GRIVOT, D., Le diable dans la cathedrale, Paris, Editions Morel, 1960.
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.