Meaning in the Monstrous: Gargoyles, Grotesques, and Other Curiosities

When I volunteered years ago as a greeter at the Washington National Cathedral’s gate house, visitors would sometimes ask, “Why are gargoyles on cathedrals?” The National Cathedral is known for its gargoyles. The architects who conceived the neo-Gothic structure in the early 20th century saw fit to incorporate gargoyles and grotesques in the building’s design just as cathedral builders did in thirteenth century Europe.  160 sculpted gargoyles jut from the National Cathedral’s walls, towers, and buttresses. Some amuse (photo 1), others delight, and more than a few are nightmarish.

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1. Master Carver Gargoyle, a tribute to master stone mason Roger Morigi, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Inevitably, discussions about the presence of gargoyles on cathedrals came to a point. The inquirer perceived a glaring inconsistency in the juxtaposition of snarling dragons on a cathedral’s exterior with the benevolent images of apostles and saints within the cathedral.  I admit that it’s not easy to square, for example, the bizarre image of an eagle (or hawk?) with human breasts and horse hooves outside Barcelona cathedral (photo 2) with the Christian symbolism that marks the building’s interior. Often people who asked the question about gargoyles also assumed that the creatures hold some hidden meaning. It’s a reasonable assumption. There’s no doubt that most cathedrals burst at the seams with meaning and ambiguity: a set of keys symbolizes St. Peter or the papacy, a rainbow may signify divine favor, Noah, or the Apocalyptic Christ, and the color blue is associated with the Virgin Mary and the heights of heaven. Significance abounds. And yet, what could a screeching bird of prey with dangling breasts possibly mean, other than that the artist had a wild imagination?

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2. Anthropomorphic Gargoyle, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & Saint Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

I’ll do my best to answer that question below. But first, I want to admit that my pat answer to the question about why gargoyles appear on cathedrals went something like this: “Many say that gargoyles are there to ward off evil spirits.” It sounds plausible, given that some gargoyles are hideous enough to scare the pants off Freddy Krueger. But my answer begged a key question: When does something that looks like a demon dispel a demon or, in more philosophical terms, how does evil vanquish evil? I’m not sure that it does. So, I’ve wondered all along if there’s more to the story about gargoyles, and now I think there is. In this post, following some background information on gargoyles, grotesques and misericords, we’ll consider one theory about their meaning in the sculpture and wood carving of cathedrals and a few other buildings in France, Spain, Canada, and the United States.

Key Terms and Background    The question about a gargoyle’s meaning differs from one about its purpose. The purpose of gargoyles is to shunt water away from the walls of a building to prevent erosion and discoloration of the stone. They function as elaborate drain pipes. Medieval builders used gargoyles to drain the roofs of churches, residences, and government buildings (photo 3).

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3. Dragon Gargoyles on the Palais de Justice, Rouen, Normandy, France

The English word gargoyle derives from the Latin word garga, meaning throat. It’s the root for “gargle” too. The Germans are more descriptive. They call gargoyles wasserspeirs, or “water spitters.” Depending on the rainfall’s intensity, they spit or disgorge water through their mouths. Medieval stone masons would cut a trough on the topside of the gargoyle to channel water away from the building and through the gargoyle’s mouth to the ground below. A 13th century gargoyle in the form of a dachshund at Chartres Cathedral illustrates the concept (photo 4). These days, masons typically insert metal conduit in a gargoyle to carry water through the sculpture. The conduit pipe is evident in the mouth of “Sir Ram,” a 21st century gargoyle at Gloucester Cathedral (photo 5).

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4. Dachshund Gargoyle (ca. 1300), Chartres Cathedral, France

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5. Sir Ram Gargoyle by Pascal Mychalysin, Cathedral of St. Peter and the Holy Trinity, Gloucester, England, UK

It’s important to mention here that the words gargoyle and grotesque are not synonymous. According to Janetta Rebold Benton in her informative book, Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings, “The term gargoyle has come to be applied, inaccurately, to other sculptures on the exteriors of medieval buildings that are similar to gargoyles in their grotesque anatomy but do not function as waterspouts.” This means that we can think of gargoyles as a subset of grotesques, which may themselves be decorative, functional, or both.  And to complicate things a bit, not all grotesques are ugly. Ms. Benton notes that “grotesque” comes from the French word grotte, meaning grotto or cave. It referred originally to the imaginative paintings of people, animals, and flowers found in caves beneath some Roman dwellings.  The so-called Bayeux Lovers, a famous twelfth century stone carving at Bayeux Cathedral, provide an example of a rather charming grotesque (photo 6).

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6. The Bayeux Lovers, Notre Dame Cathedral, Bayeux, France

In addition to sculpted grotesques, one sometimes sees strange or fanciful figures in the wood carvings that adorn the misericords in the choir stalls of some medieval cathedrals. Misericords, defined as “a narrow ledge on the underside of a hinged seat, designed to support a person standing at rest against the turned up seat,” enabled weary monks to rest their bottoms as they stood for long hours during the Mass. The subject matter for misericords runs the gamut from solemn and serious to absurd and hilarious. I invite you to envision a monk’s behind in close proximity to the roosters who are peering up at the buttocks of two indistinguishable creatures (who might as well be monks) and try not to smile. Pere C’Anglada, the artist commissioned in 1394 to design Barcelona Cathedral’s choir stalls, clearly had a ribald sense of humor (photo 7)!

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7. Rooster Misericord, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Studies and Speculation   Those who have studied gargoyles in the context of cathedrals and churches have advanced more than a few ideas about what these monsters in stone might mean. Janetta Benton lists nearly a dozen interpretations in her book; gargoyles as warnings to sinners, guardians of the church, symbols of temptations, attention grabbers, and more. She observes that given their great variety, “it is extremely unlikely that there is one meaning for all gargoyles.” I agree. Nonetheless, one theory about their meaning intrigues me more than all the others: that gargoyles and grotesques in general may be “survivals of pagan beliefs the church permitted to persist beside Christian subjects….”

Ronald Sheridan and Anne Ross agree with that hypothesis and, in their book Gargoyles and Grotesques: Paganism in the Medieval Church, assert that, “The Church in medieval times had come to be the storehouse of the sub-conscious of the people–the lumber room as it were, in which were bygone, ancient, half-forgotten and half-formulated beliefs and superstitions, customs, and folklore. The authorities would seem to have been remarkably tolerant of these, and by countenancing such bric-a-brac the Church has effectively preserved to an astonishing degree a great deal of our ancient past.”

So, whose ancient past did the Church preserve?

Meet the Celts  I think it’s safe to say that most people in the United States and perhaps elsewhere associate Celt and Celtic with Ireland.  To be sure, people in Ireland are Celts and some speak Gaelic, a Celtic language. But they’re not the only ones with Celtic roots. Three centuries before Christ, Celtic tribes inhabited much of Europe north of the Alps. The Greeks called them keltoi. The Romans called them Galli, the Latin root for the English words Gaul and Gallic. Nations are named for the Celts; Belgium for the Belgae and Great Britain for the Britanni. Celtic tribes lived in northern Spain where the Galicia region still bears their name. France’s famous capital city is named for the Parisii, a tribe that joined an uprising against Julius Caesar and his Roman legions after they invaded and occupied Gaul around 50 BCE. Before the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean world and Western Europe, the so-called free Celts extended from Ireland in the west to the Balkans in the east. One tribe moved even further east to what is now Turkey. Saint Paul wrote to the Christians among them in his epistle to the Galatians.

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8. Celtic Head Corbel (13th or 14th c.) on House Moved from Girona to Pedralbes Monastery, Barcelona, Spain

The Romans dreaded the Celts. They were fearsome warriors who wore mustaches (photo 8), painted their bodies before battle, fought naked, and decapitated their fallen enemies. They hung the severed heads on their horses and, in some cases, displayed them in their homes as trophies. Women fought alongside men, a practice that possibly inspired a late 14th century misericord at Barcelona’s cathedral that shows two (fully clothed) maidens raising shields against sword wielding combatants who stand on the legs of strutting birds (photo 9, below). These and other customs led one historian to describe the Celts as “a Roman nightmare.” Consequently, Rome warred against various Celtic tribes for more than three hundred years before and after Christ. Roman legions drove the Celts out of northern Italy around 200 BCE in a brutal conflict that had genocidal aspects. They finally subdued Celtic resistance in continental Europe and much of Britain by the end of the first century CE. Over time, dozens of Celtic tribes were integrated into the Roman Empire. Celtic gods eventually merged with their Roman counterparts.

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9. Misericord with Women in Combat, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

Centuries later, long after the Christianization of Western Europe, vestiges of the pagan beliefs to which Janetta Benton referred appeared in stone and wood images in countless cathedrals, abbey churches, and cloisters in France, England, and Spain. It’s significant that many of Europe’s most famous medieval cathedral towns began as Celtic settlements. Canterbury began with the Cantiaci, and Chartres was originally Carnutum, “City of the Carnutes” (photo 10). The “lumber room” full of half-forgotten superstitions, customs, and beliefs in these towns and others was stuffed by the Celts.

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10. View to North of Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France

Celtic Deities  As we’ve seen, there is a lot of wood—most of it finely carved oak—in the lumber room that Sheridan and Ross so aptly named. But the medieval storehouse of the subconscious also holds a quarry full of limestone bearing the images of Celtic gods and goddesses.  Dr. Miranda Aldhouse Green, an eminent authority on Celtic religion, wrote in her Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend that the names of more than 400 Celtic gods and goddesses are known, the majority of them being local deities. Let’s meet one whose cult was widespread and whose popularity continues.

Cernunnos was the lord of the animals, fertility, abundance, and regeneration. His name means horned or peaked one. He appears in art well before the Roman conquest and variously wears antlers and bull or ram horns.  In one of the earliest images of Cernunnos inscribed on a silver cauldron that dates to the 3rd or 4th century BCE, the god holds a snake with a ram’s head. The snake likely symbolizes regeneration and the ram, virility and fecundity. Sheridan and Ross note that he often represented the devil or the demonic in Christian contexts. With his emblematic horns and portrayed with a sinister or threatening affect, it’s easy to mistake Cernunnos for the Christians’  “prince of darkness.”

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11. Cernunnos Capital, Mont St. Michel Abbey, France

Sculpted Cernunnos figures are reportedly common in Europe, and they’re not uncommon in North America. In a capital atop a column, probably dating to the 12th century, at Mont St. Michel Abbey the god appears to be placid or staring blankly into space (photo 11, above). About 300 years later, Cernunnos showed up in a much more  elaborate setting. Wearing a crown, his horned visage is easily missed in the complex gilded carving that borders the canopy in the choir stalls at Barcelona’s cathedral.  Foliage, most likely symbolizing the god’s association with regeneration, spreads evocatively from his groin (photo 12).

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12. Cernunnos, Choir Stall Carving, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

Two 20th century sculptures in North America give some sense of Cernunnos’ resilience as a motif in Christian art. With ram’s horns, wings, and a snake in his hands, Cernunnos seems to represent Satan, the fallen angel, in the multifaceted iconography of the Wisdom portal at Riverside Church in New York City (photo 13). He seems friendlier as a grotesque greeter near the main doorways to Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal (photo 14).

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13. Cernunnos, Wisdom Portal, Riverside Church, New York City

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14. Cernunnos Grotesque, Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal, Canada

Celtic Beliefs and Customs   Explaining the basis for Celtic religion, Professor Aldhouse Green notes that the Celts believed that everything in the natural world contained its own spirit. Thus, the Celts saw divinity in every tree, spring, stream and mountain. Gods were everywhere. The oak was sacred, wells were holy, and human heads were revered as the seat of the soul, the locus of power and spirit.  This likely explains the head-hunting practice that horrified the Romans. It may also explain why the Celts’ used stylized heads to decorate everything from wine flagons to shrines, and how “severed heads” came to be a common decorative motif in medieval cathedrals (photo 15) as well as a sculptural convention that continued into modern times (photo 16).

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15. Severed Heads (14th century), Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

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16. Lady’s Head (1909), University Club, Chicago, USA

Of the domesticated animals, dogs seem to have captured the Celts’ imagination more than others. Dogs variously represented hunting, healing and death. As companions and guardians of the hunter, they sometimes appear in Celtic religious art as symbolic protectors of a god or goddess. Two dogs, who hold what look like battle-axes, stand guard beside an unidentified deity (possibly Silvanus, the hammer god) in a misericord at Barcelona Cathedral (photo 17).

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17. Canine Guardians Misericord, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

The Celts also held a curious belief that dog saliva has healing properties. Evidently, the chance to use the dog as another symbol for the spiritual healing offered by the Church was too good for Christian iconographers to pass up. Gargoyles and grotesques in the likeness of dogs or dog-like creatures bark from the walls of cathedrals on both sides of the Atlantic (photo 4, above, and photos 18 & 19).

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18. Dog Gargoyle, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & Saint Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

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19. Dog-like Grotesque, Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal, Canada

I’ll conclude this post with some thoughts about the hybrid gargoyle (photo 2) whose weird features I highlighted above. It might come as no surprise that one of my favorite movies is Camelot. The 1960’s musical based on King Arthur’s legend and starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave resonated with me. I bought the soundtrack album and played it over and over again until I learned the songs by heart. The lyrics for one of them came to mind as I wrote this post. They’re a latter day tribute to the Celtic belief in metamorphosis, or shape shifting.  At one point in the musical Arthur chides Merlin, his boyhood teacher, about an omission in young Arthur’s education. Perplexed by his wife, Guinevere, Arthur complains, “And what of turning me to animal and bird, from beaver to the smallest bobolink?  I should have had a whirl at changing to a girl to learn the way creatures think!” King Arthur, we’re led to believe, learned how to see the big picture by looking through the eyes of a bird (photo 20).

Celtic myth, says Professor Aldhouse Green, “is redolent with animals who were once in human form, and of divinities who could transform themselves back and forth between human and animal shape.” The Celtic sense that the spiritual and physical are inseparable and that the boundaries between humans and animals are malleable, inspired medieval sculptors to fashion the strange creature with human, avian, and animal features. It may symbolize the god-like qualities of a horse’s speed and strength, a mother’s power to give birth and nurture, and an eagle’s ability to soar with the spirit of the wind. This brings me to a final thought: What would a cathedral be as a symbol of an all-encompassing City of God without a storeroom where we can sift through the artifacts that lie beneath the city’s surface?

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20. Humanoid Owl with a Book (1925), Tribune Tower, Chicago, USA

Article and Photos Copyright 2017 by Michael Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, July 3, 2017