As we know, most gargoyles, but especially monsters, devils and fantastical animals, commonly exhibit many characteristic features such as tusks, crests and pointed ears.
However, today I’m going to look at another unique and important feature that’s probably the most decorative element in gargoyle figures and appears in all the main types of gargoyle. I’m referring to wings, surely the most beautiful feature of birds and a component of many fantastical creatures, be they monsters or devils: art, history and mythology alike all contain examples of the beauty and significance of wings.
Wings enable birds to fly. Birds also use their wings to shelter their chicks, which is why wings symbolise protection. Since wings confer the ability to fly, something that humans have dreamt of doing since time immemorial, this surely explains our fascination with them. To fly is a beautiful verb that we also employ in other senses, all of them powerful and meaningful: we say that we’re flying when we walk quickly, time flies, and so on.
In his research, Mariño Ferro has explored the symbolism of wings since Antiquity. They appear in the work of authors such as Aelianus (2nd-3rd centuries) and Achilles Tatius (2nd century). Wings carry Hermes, messenger of the gods; Fame, goddess and messenger of Jupiter; the superb Pegasus; the devil; and science; the Roman triumph has bequeathed us the image of the angel, messenger of God; and Death also swoops down on wings.
Wings adorn the Sphinx, the Chimera, Horus, the dragon, the basilisk and the siren. Charbonneau-Lassay noted that the Gauls attached unfolded wings to their helmets, and said that back in those remote times, “wings were one of the ideograms of Glory, Beauty, Sublimity and Exaltation, of the favour or expected or received help from Above, of aspirations to spiritual or philosophical heights”.
In its early centuries, Christian art appropriated the wings of the pagan characters Daedalus and Icarus and gave them to the angels and the righteous souls ascending to heaven. Wings symbolise the divine mission and image, which is why angels, archangels, seraphim and cherubim are all depicted with wings. Let’s not forget that the symbols for the four evangelists —a man for Saint Matthew, a lion for Saint Mark, a bull for Saint Luke and an eagle for Saint John— all have wings, too.
The wings of the damned and of the devil have formal and iconographic significance, especially in gargoyles. They’re depicted as bat wings, the membranous wings that Christian art endows to Satan and sometimes to death. As an element associated with the devil —although he can also appear without them— bat-like wings suggest the idea of a fallen angel. As we know, a devil with bat wings starts to appear around the 14th century, for example in Dante’s Inferno.
Wings endow gargoyles with beauty, elegance, grandeur and meaning. They’re one of the most prominent, attractive and intriguing features of these figures, possessing infinite shapes and designs: they can be decorated, leaf-shaped, large or small, with reliefs, coiled, fan-shaped, and so on.
Bird’s wings, heavenly wings and demonic wings, these all adorn gargoyles.
Gargoyle wings. Photographs of gargoyles
Animal monster with decorated stripes on its wings. House of Shells (Salamanca, Spain).
Animal monster with leaf-shaped wings. Aachen Cathedral (Germany).
Eagle with raised wings. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Animal monster with small, schematic wings. Aachen Cathedral (Germany).
Devil with leaf-shaped wings. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Winged lion with bird-shaped wings that start in a spiral. León Cathedral (Spain).
Animal monster with bird-shaped wings. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Devil with little wings on its head. Salamanca Cathedral (Spain).
Animal monster with smooth wings. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Devil with bat wings. Segovia Cathedral (Spain).
Devil with large Acanthus leaf-shaped wings. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Devil with bat-like wings. San Martín Pinario Monastery (Santiago de Compostela, Spain).
Devil with bat-like wings. Cathedral of St. Michel in Carcassonne (France).
Devil with bat-like wings that join at the chest. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Devil with fan-shaped wings. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Devil with wings with an engraved bird head. Segovia Cathedral (Spain).
Animal monster with leaf-shaped wings. Brussels City Hall (Belgium).
Devil with raised wings. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Animal monster with leaf-shaped wings around the neck. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Animal monster with an outline of leaf-shaped wings. Brussels City Hall (Belgium).
Animal monster with coiled wings. San Martín Pinario Monastery (Santiago de Compostela, Spain).
Animal monster with small, schematic wings. Cathedral of St. Maurice in Mirepoix (France).
Anthropomorph with leaf-shaped wings. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Devil with fan-shaped wings. Bruges City Hall (Belgium).
CHARBONNEAU-LASSAY, L., El bestiario de Cristo. El simbolismo animal en la Antigüedad y la Edad Media, vol. I y II, Palma de Mallorca, José J. de Olañeta, Editor, 1997.
FERGUSON, G., Signs & symbols in Christian Art, New York, Oxford University Press, 1961.
LINK, L., El Diablo. Una máscara sin rostro, Madrid, Editorial Síntesis, S. A., 2002.
MARIÑO FERRO, X. R., El simbolismo animal. Creencias y significados en la cultura occidental, Madrid, Ediciones Encuentro, 1996.
Art, History and Research
Doctora en Historia del Arte. Investigadora especializada en el estudio de las gárgolas.