Art History and Research

Following on from the last post about gastrocephalic devils and the snake as an animal linked to the idea of good and evil, this post begins by talking about images of the devil in woman’s form.

The depiction of the devil in gargoyles is not just a matter of repulsive and horrible creatures, sometimes they can be seductive too. Castelli says that seducing is attracting. The demonic, to vanquish its human prey, knows that the greatest seduction is that of the abyss; the dreadful and the monstrous is its greatest effect. According to this author, in Medieval thinking, “the seductiveness of the horrible is the prelude to the infernal”.

Some authors argue that in the Middle Ages women were valued for their sex, they stood for all kinds of vices related to carnal desire. Gutiérrez Baños tells us that women in this era were “considered an instrument of ruin”. Philosopher and theologian Honorius of Autun (11th-12th century) says: “Man signifies the soul’s good thoughts, woman its depraved imaginations”.

The image of the fallen woman, mostly portrayed with extravagant, long and dishevelled hair and with a siren’s tempting smile, is constantly repeated in Marginal Romanesque and Gothic sculpture.



Gárgola Palacio Monterrey Salamanca (397)

Seductive woman. Palace of Monterrey in Salamanca (Spain).


Gárgola Monasterio Batalha (Portugal) (398)

Seductive woman. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).


Gárgola Monasterio Batalha (Portugal) (399)

Seductive woman. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).


In gargoyles it’s common to find demonic figures with drooping breasts. Devils with women’s breasts appear in the late Middle Ages, at a time when women symbolised damnation and guilt.


Gárgola Catedral Burgos (400)

 Devil with breasts. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).


Gárgola Catedral Burgos (401)

 Devil with breasts. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).


Gárgola Catedral Vitoria (402)

 Devil with breasts. Vitoria Cathedral (Spain).


Gárgola Catedral Burgos (403)

 Devil with breasts. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).


Gárgola Catedral Burgos (404)

 Devil with breasts. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).


However, these images can also have other meanings. Kenaan-Kedar states that women monsters with animal heads and bodies and women’s breasts depicted women’s devouring nature. Both they and old women make up a combination of figures described in the Witches’ Sabbath. Depictions of old women in Marginal Romanesque and Gothic sculpture are connected with the idea of causing harm in others and not simply with the grotesqueness of old age.

There are also gargoyles with figures of witches, women at the service of evil. The Malleus Maleficarum (1487), an inquisitorial treatise written during the terrible witch hunts of the Inquisition, shows the significance of witches and what they stood for back then.



Gárgola Catedral Plasencia (405)

Woman monster/devil with breasts. Plasencia Cathedral (Spain).


Gárgola Ayuntamiento Bruselas (Bélgica) (406)

Woman monster with breasts. Brussels City Hall (Belgium).


Gárgola Ayuntamiento Bruselas (Bélgica) (408)

Woman monster with breasts. Brussels City Hall (Belgium).


Gárgola Catedral St. Étienne Cahors (Francia) (407)

Woman with drooping breasts. St. Étienne Cathedral in Cahors (France).


Gárgola Monasterio Batalha (Portugal) (409)

Old woman. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).


Gárgola Palacio Monterrey Salamanca (410)

Old woman. Palace of Monterrey in Salamanca (Spain).


Gárgola Museo Provincial Salamanca (411)

Witch. Provincial Museum of Salamanca (Spain).


The portrayal of the devil has evolved over time. In the early Gothic period, the figures were more symbolic than grotesque. However, by the late Gothic the devil was starting to appear more frequently and would become more of a comic rather than a terrifying image. According to Rebold Benton, this was the result of the loss of some of its religious connotations in sculpture of the end of the Gothic period, which played down its maleficent nature. Plus, the comic and the unpleasant often became mixed up, so the devil gradually turned into more of a theatrical character, even a kind of buffoon.

It’s worth noting that in all periods and places, people have used the grotesque – both horrific and benevolent – to symbolise their wish to avoid the powers of evil and channel the forces of good.



Gárgola Catedral Burgos (412)

Grotesque devil. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).


Gárgola Catedral Astorga (413)

Grotesque devil. Astorga Cathedral (Spain).


Gárgola Casa de las Conchas (Salamanca) (414)

Grotesque devil. House of Shells in Salamanca (Spain).




Bibliography consulted

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.

GÓMEZ GÓMEZ, A., El Protagonismo de los otros. La imagen de los marginados en el Arte Románico, Bilbao, C. E. H. A. M./E. A. H. I., 1997.

GRIVOT, D., Le diable dans la cathedrale, Paris, Editions Morel, 1960.

GUTIÉRREZ BAÑOS, F., “Hacia una historia de la figuración marginal”, Archivo Español de Arte, LXXII, nº 285 (1999), pp. 53-66.

KAPPLER, C., Monstruos, demonios y maravillas a fines de la Edad Media, Madrid, Ediciones Akal, S. A., 1986.

KENAAN-KEDAR, N., Marginal Sculpture in Medieval France. Towards the deciphering of an enigmatic pictorial language, Hants (England) and Vermont (USA), Scolar Press and Ashgate Publishing Company, 1995.

KRAMER, H. y SPRENGER, J., Malleus Maleficarum. El martillo de los brujos, Barcelona, Reditar Libros, S. L., 2006.

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

SHERIDAN, R. y ROSS, A., Grotesques and Gargoyles. Paganism in the Medieval Church, London, David & Charles: Newton Abbot, 1975.



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