Gargoyles 1: Introduction and interpretation

The simplest, most straightforward definition of a gargoyle is that it is a sort of high-level stone waterspout with a gutter, projecting out far enough from the wall face to prevent water erosion. From the thirteenth century onwards these spouts were carved in the form of animal, human figures or grotesques, and since the nineteenth century, art historians have reacted in various ways to their grotesque imagery.

Gargoyle from above, showing the gutter that leads the rainwater out of the creature’s mouth. Drawing from Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire

In France, Charles Cahier and Arthur Martin, Jesuit antiquarians and founders of Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire, et de littérature, an influential multi-volume publication on medieval art that made its first appearance in 1849, took the view that this kind of high-level monstrous imagery on churches represented the legions of the enemy of salvation hovering over the heads of the faithful to deflect them from the true path. Their complex justification for this view involved Gog and Magog, widely if vaguely considered to be the servants of Lucifer in his battle against Christ, and St Paul’s description of the devil, in his letter to the Ephesians, as principem potestatis aeris ; the prince of the power of the air.

A more whimsical explanation came from the Abbé Auber, who, writing in 1871, asserted that gargoyle waterspouts represented devils conquered by the church and set to perform this menial task. He noted that while simple stone drains were good enough in an earlier period, gothic sculptors used a variety of imaginative forms to emphasize the tortures undergone by the unfortunate demons.

This kind of approach was anathema to the highly respected French art historian, Emile Mâle who singled out Cahier’s and Auber’s analyses, as well as that of Félicie d’Ayzac for special criticism. Having expounded a complex medieval iconographic system based largely on the Speculum Maius of Vincent de Beauvais, Mâle found no place in it for the grotesque and monstrous imagery of the gargoyles, concluding that, as no medieval text can explain them they must be the sculptural equivalent of old wives’ tales, ancestral memories like vampires or dragons, and certainly unworthy of the attention of the serious scholar.

Chimera (on the parapet) and gargoyles at Notre-Dame, Paris. Creative Commons, Peter Cadogan

The gargoyles of Notre-Dame in Paris are far and away the best known and most dramatic of all, but they, and the chimeras crouching on the balustrades above them, are all the work of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, who spent 25 years from 1845 restoring the building from its state of post-Revolutionary dereliction. Practically all of the Gothic gargoyles were lost or worn beyond any hope of copying, while the chimeras survived only as stumps or in ambiguous antiquarian drawings.  In Viollet-le-Duc’s copious writings he was always concerned to emphasize the functionality of gargoyles. The earliest attempt to write a history of the gargoyle was his article on the subject in the Dictionnaire, which gives a closely argued history of the form, tracing its development from the short gargoyles of c.1225 at Notre-Dame to the longer ones of the nave buttresses.

This elongation inspired sculptors to produce decorative forms, and was facilitated by the availability of the limestone of the Seine basin, le liais cliquart, a fine-grained limestone that can be cut in long blocks. He stated simply that this was the reason that Parisian gargoyles were the most beautiful of all, but it is hard to resist the conclusion that they were invented at Notre-Dame. Viollet-le-Duc is perhaps closer to Mâle than any of his other French contemporaries in his resistance to any interpretation of the Gothic gargoyle beyond the functional. Another point well made by Viollet-le-Duc is that their very function means that gargoyles are subject to water erosion and were inevitably replaced, sometimes more than once, during their lifetime.  While the flow of rain through their gutters eventually compromises their usefulness, their exposed position likewise wears away their details too, so that by the time they need replacing, old gargoyles can no longer be copied. In this he found justification for his approach to replacing them, considering that what the medieval carvers had made was akin to the activity of his own team in bringing their own imagination to bear when giving monstrous shape to a practical member.

In England, something similar happened at Chester Cathedral, built of New Red Sandstone in many medieval phases from 1092. This building material is characterised by its ease of cutting when freshly quarried, and by hardening followed by rapid erosion thereafter.  Hence the striking gargoyles certainly belong to the restorations of Harrison (1818-20), Hussey (1844), Scott (1868-76) or Blomfield (1882). George Gilbert Scott’s restoration in particular was criticised at the time for the extent of his interventions.

There seems no doubt, however, that the freedom enjoyed by Viollet-le-Duc in his restorations at Notre-Dame and elsewhere was not experienced by the masons and sculptors of the Gothic period.  Why should the Dean and Chapter pay their workers to indulge their imagination in stone unless they had a specific programme in mind? It seems reasonable to look for an explanation of the forms of gargoyles that goes beyond the ghost story and the carvers’ nightmares. Cahier and Martin certainly provided one that may have satisfied their contemporaries, but to the modern audience it appears wilfully learned and would probably be inaccessible to the medieval viewer of the sculpture.  An explanation more convincing to today’s reader, developed in the work of Michael Camille, is that these terrifying creatures represent the sin and vice that fills the world, which must be rejected by the man of God.  But perhaps more than a mere representation; instead they may enable the sinful churchgoer to see what is actually present.  This is part of a far broader solution aimed at cracking the paradox of monstrous imagery in the holy space. The predatory birds and fierce beasts of Reading cloister; the grotesque and obscene corbels that surround so many churches, and the foul creatures that cluster around their doorways are there to remind us that the world is really like that, however beautiful and serene it may appear, and that the only refuge is to be found in the Church.

In a future post I will examine a few British gargoyles in more detail.

Further Reading
A. Auber, Histoire et théorie du symbolisme religieux, 4 vols, Paris 1871, II, 256, 377.
C. Cahier and A. Martin, Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire, et de littérature, Paris 1847-49, I, 75-77.
C. Camille, Image on the Edge: the Margins of Medieval Art, London 1992, esp. 77-97.
C. Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Chicago and London 2009.
E. Mâle, L’Art Religieux du XIIIe siecle en France, Paris 1898 (7th ed. 1931), 46-58.
E. Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, Paris 1854-68, VI, 21-28.

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