In today’s post we continue examining one of the most amazing and intriguing gargoyle topics, the gesturality of the body and its expressive force.
In the first part we looked at two habitual gestures in gargoyles: pulling on the mouth ― and other parts of the body ― and placing the hand on the throat. In this chapter we’ll be discovering other bodily gestures, a clear expression of plasticity in art.
There’s a diverse range of hand movements in gargoyles. In fact, you can see hands placed on any part of the body, not only on the mouth or the throat, but on the head, the chest, the face, the ears, the genitals, the knees, the lap, etc., as well as showing different actions: holding some sort of object or small creature, meditating, praying, working and so on.
Generally speaking, these gestures are accompanied by great expressiveness, revealing emotions and feelings (suffering, anger, desperation, pain, pleasure, devotion, withdrawal), although they can also be entertaining, comical or grotesque gestures with no intention of displaying emotions, portrayed just for fun.
Anthropomorph with hands on the head and mouth. Tours Cathedral (France).
Naked man with hands on his mouth and knee. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Human with hands on the ears. Cathedral of St. Jean Baptiste in Perpignan (France).
Man with his hands on his face and chest. Cathedral of St. Étienne in Limoges (France).
Man with one hand behind his ear. Church of Our Lady in Trier (Germany).
Demon with hands behind the head. Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Anthropomorph with hands on the chest. Cathedral of St. Étienne in Cahors (France).
Female demon with her hands on her breasts. Brussels City Hall (Belgium).
Man with his hands on his face. Cathedral of St. Étienne in Cahors (France).
Human with hands crossed over the chest. Church of Our Lady in Trier (Germany).
Demon with hands on the chest and genitals. Cathedral of St. Michel in Carcassonne (France).
Man with one hand on his face and the other holding a hammer. Bern Cathedral (Switzerland).
Human with hands on the legs. Cathedral of St. Michel in Carcassonne (France).
Ape with one hand on the chest. Cathedral of St. Maurice in Mirepoix (France).
Woman with her hands on her lap. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Also connected with these kinds of playful, mocking figures is the gesture of sticking out one’s tongue. Research into its meaning leads us to believe that it’s a kind of mockery that could be a sign of disrespect and contempt for the sacred, a common gesture used in the portrayal of evil creatures and people of low class. This is seen especially in devilish figures which, from the late Gothic onwards, become images that are more comical than terrifying. Some authors think that the stuck out, protruding tongue comes from the classic Gorgon, although it also appears in depictions of the Egyptian Bes, probably known by Coptic monks, according to Link. The exact meaning of this gesture can only be imagined. The intention may simply be to depict a crude, threatening gesture that is often accompanied by foliage-covered heads (green man). However, the meaning might also be more witty. It was generally thought that exhibiting the genitalia was to keep the forces of evil at bay. Sheridan and Ross argue that the sticking out tongue may have been thought to have similar powers, so it may be that these heads looking down from high up on sacred buildings may have been intended to keep demonic forces under control. Similarly, art historian Michael Camille says that this is an offensive gesture seen in many Medieval faces, based on the apotropaic power of the classic Gorgon, where the tongue is a clear substitute for the penis and its power to prevent the evil eye. This small protuberance sliding out of the creature’s moist mouth defines it as something masculine; the tongue was a dangerous, obscene organ. Rebold Benton also connects the gesture of sticking out the tongue with Satan, who sticks his tongue out to make fun of his victims. A prominent tongue also symbolises traitors, heretics and blasphemers.
Woman demon sticking out her tongue. Brussels City Hall (Belgium).
Demon with human head sticking out its tongue (below). Bordeaux Cathedral (France).
Green man with his tongue sticking out. Luxembourg National Library.
Likewise, gargoyles are shown with various leg gestures and movements, a dynamic and vividly eloquent gesture that generally gives the figures great plasticity. You can see various signs and movements that also indicate actions (dancing, attacking, fighting, etc.), seated and rampant figures, crouching and kneeling figures, figures with heads or bodies turned to one side, with crossed legs or arms, and so on. According to Camille, crossed legs symbolise arrogance.
Man with head turned to one side. Church of St. Gangolf in Trier (Germany).
Rampant lamb. Cathedral of St. Juste in Narbonne (France).
Demon turned to one side. Tours Cathedral (France).
Indigenous man with arms crossed. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Man with crossed legs. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Skeleton with crossed arms. Palencia Cathedral (Spain).
Some figures, human in particular, are shown with contortionist gestures. Le Goff tells us that contortionists, along with prostitutes, were the archetypes of a gestural practice linked to demonic possession and they were outlawed during the 13th century. In his Etimologies (7th century) St. Isidore says that circus games were created for pagan celebrations. “Therefore, those who attend them as spectators are considered to serve devil worship by their very presence”.
Contortionist. Cathedral of St. Juste in Narbonne (France).
Contortionist (grotesque). Vitoria Cathedral (Spain).
In terms of intentional gestures and movements, this post closes with figures of seductive women, images that are expressive, energetic and passionate. We have already discussed the image of the devil in woman’s form in the Middle Ages, as part of the views on women as symbols of perversity and sin. Agustín Gómez argues that in the Middle Ages women were judged by their sex, so they stood for all kinds of vices related to carnal desire. Honorio de Autun (11th-12th century) said: “Man signifies the soul’s good thoughts, woman the depraved imaginations”. The image of the fallen woman, mostly portrayed with extravagant hairstyles and a tempting smile, is constantly repeated in Marginal Romanesque and Gothic sculpture. Women’s hair is shown curly or long and untidy, and their smiles similar to that of sirens in art. Kenaan-Kedar supposes that the hairstyle is a precise detail that can be interpreted as being fashionable among prostitutes of that period.
Once again, history and art join forces to show us the exciting connection between the images and their symbolism, their power of attraction and the fabulous learning and enjoyment gained, both from the images for their artistic beauty and from the meaning that always reveals a symbolism related to the historic, social, moral and psychological factors that formed part of the collective imagination in the Middle Ages.
Seductive woman. Church of Our Lady in Trier (Germany).
CAMILLE, M., El ídolo gótico. Ideología y creación de imágenes en el arte medieval, Madrid, Ediciones Akal, S. A., 2000.
CAMILLE, M., The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame. Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
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.
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.
LE GOFF, J. y TRUONG, N., Una historia del cuerpo en la Edad Media, Barcelona, Ediciones Paidós Ibérica, S. A., 2005.
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.
SAN ISIDORO DE SEVILLA, Etimologías, II (Libros XI-XX), texto latino, versión española, notas e índices por J. Oroz Reta y M. A. Marcos Casquero, Madrid, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, de La Editorial Católica, S. A., 1982.
SHERIDAN, R. y ROSS, A., Grotesques and Gargoyles. Paganism in the Medieval Church, London, David & Charles: Newton Abbot, 1975.