Curious Questions: Why do churches have gargoyles?

Inevitably hideous and often mischievous, why do gargoyles and grotesques adorn some of our most solemn churches, asks Ben Lerville.

Imagine the church outside. Here’s the porch, here’s the spire, here’s the parish bulletin board. Everything is very orderly and very charming except for the creepy faces on the rooftop. They squint at us as if they know something we don’t, their nostrils flaring and their teeth grinning. Some have horns, others have fangs or obscene protruding tongues. They are made of ugly stone, their sickly features frozen in cackling disdain for the weak people below. Very few of them have what you would call a benevolent gaze.

Gargoyles and grotesques still look down from many churches, cathedrals, colleges and country houses. But what are they, why are they here, and how did these gutter demons come to play a role in formal architecture? Just as the drawings themselves take on a wide variety of forms, from snarling dragons and gritty man-beasts to disheveled rogues and grinning gremlins, even those we might recognize as aliens, there is a tangle of different theories and answers.

The gargoyle is a practical design feature. The name comes from the old French word gargoyle, meaning “throat”, a reference to the fact that real gargoyles serve as waterspouts. They help drain rainwater away from the building’s masonry, most often through the figure’s mouth, essentially becoming a decorative part of the drainage system. On the other hand, the grotesque is a stone sculpture that does not have the function of a spout. To confuse things, the term gargoyle is often used to refer to both gargoyles and grotesques.

Gargoyles in York Minster.

Carvings have been appearing under our roofs for a long time. “The great age for them was the late medieval, late Gothic period,” explains Alex Woodcock, a former cathedral mason and author of the book. Gargoyles and grotesques (Bloomsbury). “That’s when they get really quite inventive because of the changes in the style of the roof lines. But they rely on a long history of people placing figures and images in the place. Romanesque architecture used a lot of carved projections, and before that temples had antefixes, pressed terracotta images on cornices depicting things like Medusa.”

However, unlike the sculpted ledges and other similar elements of earlier buildings, medieval grotesques and gargoyles had no structural or protective supporting role, existing either as gutters or as self-contained grimacing works of art. Most, though not all, depicted a single face or figure with a demonic or animal posture; dozens were included in the design of some buildings. As a hallmark of the design of the Gothic period, which stretched widely between the 12th and 16th centuries, they are found in countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and, of course, Great Britain.

Initially, they did not cause universal admiration. As early as the 12th century, the French religious leader Saint Bernard of Clairvaux spoke frankly about this. “What do these impure monkeys mean, these strange ferocious lions and monsters?” He wrote. “Why are these creatures, half-beast, half-man, or these spotted tigers placed here?.. Of course, if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we spent on them.”

Saint Bernard’s confusion as to why these carvings were commissioned—often at considerable expense—still persists today. “There are a lot of theories and ideas as to why they are here,” agrees Dr. Woodcock, who previously renovated some of the weathered grotesques at Exeter Cathedral in Devon. “The truth is, no one really knows. It has to do with many things. Churches and cathedrals are places between the human world and the divine world, and monstrous images tend to coalesce around these places, perhaps to warn us that this is a different space, or perhaps to protect this building and its users from malevolence. .’

Gargoyle on the south side of the ancient cathedral at Ely, Cambridgeshire.

The idea that the sculptures somehow serve as a protective charm to ward off evil spirits is one of the most widely held theories, although many other hypotheses exist. First, the grotesques and gargoyles, some of which may have originally been brightly colored, were designed to be “read” by illiterate parishioners – behave differently! Secondly, the carvings sent a message that the outside world was full of atrocities and chaos, in contrast to the holiness of the church itself.

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“There is also a long tradition of carving powerful images associated with sacred sites,” continues Dr. Woodcock. “If you break a gargoyle, it often consists of different parts of powerful animals, so you can get the head of a lion and the wings of a bird. They mix up categorical things and that puts us on the edge of what we can understand. You could say that the association of gargoyles with these buildings has something to do with it – these are places that we will never be able to fully understand.

Whatever the reasons for their existence, there is something enlivening in the perpetually scowling face that is part of an austere building. Worshipers for more than half a millennium could not resist the stunning gaze of some of these sculptures, often impeccably executed. And the trade is still alive, as evidenced by the stuffed alien from the Ridley Scott movie. stranger film on the façade of Paisley Abbey near Glasgow, 1990s addition.

The Alien gargoyle from Paisley Abbey has become an internet sensation. Old gargoyles look like Hollywood movie creatures despite being hundreds of years old.

A sense of real mischief is at the heart of many British grotesques, from the nose-picking slacker at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire to the 15th-century sleepwalking gargoyle of Easton-on-the-Hill, Northamptonshire, who gives up her nose for something more, ahem. , rear – but Dr. Woodcock can debunk one particular myth.

“This idea of ​​masons stealing things,” he rebuts, amused at the thought of masons adding their own pranks to the roofline of a church. “Gargoyles are the main carvings. In fact, you only see half of the stone because the other half is built into the building. A large stone block is worth buying and moving, as well as crafting. Records from the late medieval period show that parishes or patrons paid for them. As a bricklayer, I can tell you can’t sneak in here.”

A carving of a masked NHS worker that was placed in the historic Christchurch monastery as a permanent tribute to the health service’s efforts during the pandemic. A stone element was added to the 11th century Dorset Priory Christchurch as part of a project to replace damaged gargoyles and grotesques.

Where to find the best gargoyles in Britain

Many cathedrals have excellent examples, such as Chester in Cheshire, St Magnus’s in Orkney and the recently restored grotesques in Canterbury, Kent, all worthy of study.

  • St. Peter’s Church in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, is home to a gap-toothed, hat-wearing grotesque known as the Mad Hatter. Some have suggested that this inspired the character of Lewis Carroll.

The Mad Hatter at St Peter’s Church, Winchcombe, Cotswolds, Gloucestershire.

  • Some of the country’s most prestigious colleges are home to elaborate grotesques and gargoyles, including King’s College, Cambridge and New College, Oxford.
  • When the towers and grotesques were renovated at Cirenster Parish Church in Gloucestershire in the mid-2000s, three new carvings were added: a businessman, a farmer and a Mohican punk.
  • More generally, the limestone belt that arcs from Dorset to Lincolnshire tends to be home to impressive carvings due to the easy accessibility of the stone.
  • If you want to visit several places in one trip, the group of churches in Hanwell, Bloxham, Kings Sutton and Adderbury – on the border between Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire – has some fantastic historical sculptures.
  • Cardiff Castle in Wales has all sorts of interesting carvings, including graceful gargoyles and an “animal wall” with baboons, a hyena and a bear.

On the eve of the Queen’s Jubilee, Country Life had the opportunity to photograph the majestic interiors of Westminster Abbey,

The impressive stained glass windows at Sherborne Abbey are just part of what makes this building one of the most majestic in the world.

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