A brief introduction to gargoyles

The word ‘gargoyle’ is derived from the French word ‘gargouille’, meaning throat, and they are usually in the form of a grotesque face or a hybrid of creatures, also referred to in Greek mythology as a chimera.

In folklore, the purpose of gargoyles is to ward off evil or harmful spirits and their wide open mouths are symbolic of devouring giants. Another use was to represent evil and scare people into going to church to seek sanctuary – gargoyles acted as a reminder of the hell they would experience if they did not attend.

Although they are aesthetically fascinating beasts, gargoyles also serve the very practical function of draining water from the roofs of churches and cathedrals to protect the stonework from erosion. When solely used for architectural adornment, they are known as ‘grotesques’.

Here are just a few examples of gargoyles and grotesques in England:

Grotesque on St John the Baptists church, Essex
St John the Baptists church, Essex. Image by John Gay © Historic England Archive AA101139
Church of St John the Baptist, Church Street, Halifax. Gargoyles on south side.
Church of St John the Baptist, Halifax © Historic England Archive DP087857
A stone gargoyle head, possible a boar, over a drainpipe in the Cloister Quad. 1900 MAGDALEN COLLEGE CLOISTER OXFORDSHIRE OXFORD OXFORD
A stone Gargoyle  head, Magdalen College Cloister, Oxford © Historic England Archive CC50/00146
Grotesque on Battlefield
Battlefield © The Churches Conservation Trust
Dog grotesque on church in Skelton cum Newby
Dog grotesque on church in Skelton cum Newby
Stonework_ Battlefield_(c) The Churches Conservation Trust
Stonework Battlefield © The Churches Conservation Trust
Grotesque on All Saints Langport
All Saints Church, Langport © Church Conservation Trust

There are  racier gargoyles around. The below is of a mooning man in Germany. Apparently the stone masons aimed the carving at the council building because of the increasing demands on stone masons without an increase in pay.

Gargoyle of a mooning man
Defecating gargoyle in Freiburg, Germany © F Delventhal via Flickr

In the 12th century, church leader, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was famous for speaking out against gargoyles.

“What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent’s head, there a fish with a quadruped’s head, then again an animal half horse, half goat… Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.”

Further reading:

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