Art History and Research
Today’s journey takes us to the beautiful capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz, the city that’s home to the cathedral of María Inmaculada, a delight for all gargoyle lovers.
This visit is going to take more than one post because, although at first I was intending to simply show you a significant repertoire, I don’t think you can miss out on this host of fascinating beings and creatures surrounding the building.
The cathedral was built in the Neo-Gothic style (1907-1969) and is known as “Catedral Nueva” (new cathedral) to distinguish it from the Gothic cathedral of Santa María (“Catedral Vieja” or old cathedral).
We’re not looking at Medieval gargoyles here, but the figures still have their own wealth of formal beauty and impressive iconography. The gargoyles on the north and south sides of the building were sculpted by Manuel and Aurelio Rivas between 1964 and 1965. The stone cutting work is brilliant and there is a huge variety of highly original types.
Cathedral of María Inmaculada in Vitoria (Spain).
Among the human figures we see a man with snakes coiled around him, a feature of demonic connotation that can also refer to a sinner being tormented by the evil one. As we saw in the third post about the devil in gargoyles, in Christian iconography, the snake is connected 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. In this gargoyle they are shown attacking the man.
Man with snakes coiled around him.
There is an apparently naked figure, a man with African features, with his hands crossed over his chest and his hands and feet in chains, a slave chained to a stone block. We discussed the subject of nakedness in a previous post, however, let’s remember that in the Middle Ages, nakedness was considered to be humiliating and degrading, a sign of having been expelled from the community and the domain of devils, pagans and heretics, “a stain from the pagan gods that must be wiped from Christian consciousness”, as Luther Link says. This author also states that nakedness in the human figure and in the devil comes from classic Antiquity.
We also see a semi-naked man, wearing short pants, kneeling and tugging at his nipples, an unusual and disconcerting image that we already saw in a gargoyle on the Monastery at Batalha (Portugal).
Slave in chains.
Man tugging at his nipples.
A woman showing her breasts, with one knee on the ground, holding onto an apple in one hand and pointing to it with the index finger of the other, with an expression somewhere between screaming and laughing, could be a portrayal of sinful Eve, a reference that takes us to another gargoyle we already saw on the Parish Church of San Pedro in Gata (Cáceres, Spain).
Semi-naked woman with apple.
The four last figures show people at work. The first is a man with a moustache, a helmet-like hat and holding a pipe in his hands. There’s also a very strange and unsettling gargoyle, a postman in his work uniform, holding envelopes and whose body from the waist downwards consists of a wheel with wings. Another is a kneeling woman who is sweeping with a broom and dressed as a cleaner. The last is a worker with his equipment and tools, maybe referring to the artists and craftsmen from the studios working in the cathedral.
Worker with pipe.
Postman with winged wheel.
Woman sweeping with broom.
Worker with tools.
As for devils, there are three very interesting gargoyles. One of them depicts a seated devil with its hands resting on its knee and leg, with anthropomorphic features, a bird’s beak ― like the demon with a bird’s beak on the Cathedral of St. Maurice de Mirepoix (France) ―, abundant body hair and muscular arms. The second is also anthropomorphic, with its hands held up to its face, screaming and placed on the bust of a smiling, grotesque man, possibly a sinner carrying his sins. As we saw in the post on the scream in gargoyles, in the Middle Ages, the visual representation of individual emotions like screaming was intended to depict and convey pain and suffering, and those who scream are marginal figures: drunkards, beggars, the diseased, prostitutes, even the artists themselves. The most common portrayals of the scream are accompanied by prominent tongues, bared and sometimes clenched teeth, strident laughter, etc., all of which are characteristic features of the devil. However, when it comes to human beings, these features not only depict devilish types but they also express recrimination and provocation. The third is a very distinctive, modern figure. It’s a fantastic looking devil, from science fiction, with an alien-style head, women’s breasts, genitals and claws on its feet.
Devil with bird’s beak.
Anthropomorphic devil with bust underneath.
One of the most original gargoyles is a plant monster, a fascinating tree-man. It’s a very unusual type and is linked to Green Man figures. In Spain you can see some superb examples of plant monsters at Salamanca Cathedral.
It’s very rare to find images of angels on gargoyles, and I’d like to finish this post with this cathedral’s trumpeter angel, which for me is the most beautiful portrayal of an angel I’ve ever seen on a gargoyle.
Original, weird, disturbing, satirical, grotesque, tremendously expressive and dynamic, with an amazing iconography, stunningly beautiful and with excellent, detailed carving, the gargoyles on Vitoria’s “Catedral Nueva” are yet further proof of the creative freedom and boundless imagination that gargoyle sculptors have demonstrated through the ages.
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.
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.