Art History and Research. Images of Gargoyles
To continue with the post on unusual animals that appear in images of gargoyles, I invite you to discover some more real animals that are every bit as surprising and peculiar as the first one I’m showing you today: the seahorse.
In the Greek and Roman world, the seahorse was an emblem of the marine element and was considered to be a guardian spirit, healer and guide for the dead. Both the seahorse and the frog are animals connected to water, just like mermaids, who, according to Brunetto Latini (a 13th century philosopher) are “meretrices” (a meretrix was a registered prostitute in ancient Rome), malevolent beings “who dwelt in the water because lechery was made out of moisture”.
Seahorse. Salamanca Cathedral (Spain).
The pig represents the demon of sensuality and gluttony. Aristotle (4th century B.C.) says that, after man, pigs and dogs are the animals that copulate the most. Pliny the Elder (1st century) brands them as stupid since most of them are incapable of recognising the voice of their owner.
Pig. Abbey of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe (France).
Pig. Alcobaça Monastery (Portugal).
Pig. Guarda Cathedral (Portugal).
Pig. Bayonne Cathedral (France).
Another unusual animal in gargoyle imagery is the hippopotamus. In the Old Testament, this animal, along with the crocodile, represented the forces of evil that only God could overcome. For Aelian (1st-2nd century), “it is the most impious animal because it devours its own father”. A symbol of irreverence, ingratitude and of the impiety and cruelty of children against parents, the hippopotamus is linked to water, although it obtains its food from the banks of the river where it lives. The Greeks called it “river horse”, which is the meaning of its name, arguing that its bellow could be compared only to the neigh of an agitated horse.
Hippopotamus. Alcobaça Monastery (Portugal).
One of the most interesting symbols is that of the rooster. Throughout the ancient world, it became an emblem for its fierceness and courage when defending its hens and their mothers. In China it was an emblem of the defender of the family. The white rooster in particular was an image of what was good, admirable and of great valour. The rooster was also a symbol of vigilance for its voice: “It is not a song, it is not a shout, but something like a fanfare sound that emerges; depending on the hour, it is a warning sign, it is the voice of the boss or of the attentive father, it is the horn played by the victor to the four winds, very loudly, to announce his victory and his joy…” (Charbonneau-Lassay, 1997). Like in Antiquity, in China it’s thought that the rooster’s voice has the power to ward off evil spirits. In Christianity, it was linked with the Voice of Christ calling souls to prayer. However, its virile and procreative strength turned it into a symbol of lasciviousness, and in the European Middle Ages it symbolised anger because of the frequent fights between young roosters.
Rooster. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Now we’re going to talk about one of my favourite animals, the cat. Although it’s a domestic creature, the cat doesn’t like being shut in, so it’s a symbol of freedom. This is why it appears on a number of coats of arms: the ancient Alans, Burgundians and Suebis carried it on their ensigns, showing that, just as cats cannot be forcefully contained, these nations refused to accept servitude. In Aristotle’s time they were regarded as lustful animals. Cats are nocturnal creatures. At night their eyes shine: “It overcomes the darkness of the night with the embers of its eyes” (Thomas de Cantimpré, 13th century). In Egypt, the changes in cats’ pupils to adapt to light evoked the phases of the moon. Nocturnal, with shining eyes and lustful, all attributes that in medieval times unfortunately meant that the cat was regarded as a symbol of the devil and companion of witches, who were often said to adopt the form of a black cat. All this, together with the idea that they bring bad luck, has led to cats being sadly and unfairly treated cruelly and with contempt. But it’s not all bad. There is a legend called Gatta della Madonna that tells how at the birth of Christ a cat also gave birth to a litter of kittens in the same stable, which resulted in this cat being shown as having the sign of the cross on its back. Although it’s not often depicted in gargoyles, it does appear in other arts, such as in the Canterbury Bestiary (c. 1290-1300), and on a 12th century corbel in Notre Dame de Vouvant (France).
Cat. Alcobaça Monastery (Portugal).
Cat. León Cathedral (Spain).
Another unusual animal in gargoyle images is the monkey. The figure of the ape has been used to symbolise sin, malice, cunning and lust. It’s also the emblem of man’s lazy soul. The monkey also symbolises the devil, which is sometimes shown in the form of an ape, and when it is depicted in chains it’s connected with the idea of sin conquered by faith and virtue. Apes sometimes appear together with other animals in scenes of the Visitation of the Magi. You can also see it portrayed in other arts, such as in the 14th century Bestiary of El Escorial.
Monkey. New City Hall in Munich (Germany).
Monkey. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
For authors like Cirlot (Dictionary of Symbols, 1969), animal symbolism can be linked with totemism and zoolatry. We’re talking about a symbolic need that began with the very earliest tribes, that continues to this day and that “will last while there are humans on the earth”. For Cassirer (Mythical Thought, 1971) the totemic image is an authentic identity, there seems to be no difference between man and beast; a “psychic identity” linking primitive humans and some wild animals.
Throughout history there have been eras in which there was hardly any communication with animals, and this made them seem strange and impenetrable. People projected their fears and anxieties onto them, attributing powers to them, and in many cases this negative symbolism invented by humans has done them terrible harm. Animals do not have negative powers, they are wonderful beings that inhabit the planet, just like humans do. And they’re always with us, our companions in sad and happy times, in history, in art… in short, along life’s journey.
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FERGUSON, G., Signs & symbols in Christian Art, New York, Oxford University Press, 1961.
HASSIG, D., Medieval Bestiaries. Text, Image, Ideology, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
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.
MALAXECHEVERRÍA, I., Bestiario medieval, edición y traducción del inglés de I. Malaxecheverría, Madrid, Ediciones Siruela, S. A., 2008.
MARIÑO FERRO, X. R., El simbolismo animal. Creencias y significados en la cultura occidental, Madrid, Ediciones Encuentro, 1996.
Doctora en Historia del Arte. Investigadora especializada en el estudio de las gárgolas.