Fearsome, Functional Gargoyles, Then and Now

WORLD HISTORY | February 18, 2019

A gargoyle statue is seen among a property smoldering rubble in Paradise, north of Sacramento, California on November 09, 2018. Source: (ABC10.com)

High atop old European churches and cathedrals, you will find the terrifying looking gargoyles. Carved of stones and resembling devilish monsters, these strange statues have been frightening people since medieval days. To our modern minds, gargoyles are puzzling. Why would people hundreds of years ago think it was a good idea to mount scary, grotesque demons on the roofs of their churches? It turns out the gargoyles have a few important functions, but through the years, they have also gained a reputation as a symbol of medieval fear that has earned them a place in today’s pop culture. Let us take a terrifying look at fearsome gargoyles, then and now. 

Gargoyle on St. Colman's Cathedral, Cobh, Ireland. Source: (tripsavvy.com)

Then…a Medieval Waterspout

Around the 13th century, European architects had a problem to solve. How do they funnel rainwater off the tops of church roofs without running the water down the side of the stone or brick? Too much water pouring down the side of the building could weaken and damage the stone structure. What was needed was a way for the water to flow in a spout away from the exterior. Craftsmen carved large, imposing-looking stone demons with their neck and heads leaning over the edges of the buildings. The rainwater would collect and pour out of the creatures’ mouths onto the street below. 

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame", Disney animated movie, 1996. Source: (jadensadventures.fandom.com)

Now…Disney Anthropomorphized Gargoyles

In the 1996 Disney animated feature film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, three of the stone gargoyles at France’s Notre Dame Cathedral have the ability to come to life. In fact, it appears that this trio, named Victor, Hugo, and Laverne, has raised Quasimodo since he was an infant…quite a feat for hunks of stone. In true Disney fashion, the anthropomorphize gargoyles, each with a distinct personality, are at first fearsome, but become lovable, comic sidekicks during the course of the film. 

Gargoyle at the Palais de Justice, Rouen, France. Source: (pintrest.com)

Then…Gargoyles Are Named After an Ancient Legend

Derived from the French word ‘gargouille’ which means ‘throat’, you may think that the name was chosen because the stone gargoyles spout rainwater from their throats. While this would make sense, the story of how gargoyles were named is more complicated. In the 600s BCE, there was a legend about a terrifying dragon that menaced the people of Rouen, France. One day, a priest arrived and agreed to rid the town of the blood-thirsty dragon if the residents all agreed to become Christians. The priest calmed the dragon by making the sign of the cross, and when it was subdued, the priest burned the dragon at the stake. All but the dragon’s head turned to ash. The now-Christian townspeople mounted the dragon’s head to the top of their church to warn other dragons to stay away.

A Fortnite gargoyle. Source: (pcgamer.com)

Now…Gargoyles Are a Gamer’s Friend

Are you a fan of Fortnite? If so, finding a gargoyle may be a good thing. In the popular multi-player video game, gargoyles can give power and life to gamers who find them and dance for them. Gargoyles are found in many other video games, including Dark Souls and Diablo

A Gargoyle on Paisley Abbey in Scotland strongly resembles the alien predator of the 1979 movie classic, "Alien". Source: (thevintagenews.com)

Then…Gargoyles Were Fear Incarnated

Gargoyles were purposefully designed to look like devils and demons so that the illiterate parishioners coming to medieval churches got the message loud and clear that there was much evil in the world outside the church. The priests wanted to put the fear of Hell into churchgoers as a way to scare them into attending worship services and follow church doctrine. What better way to do that than to place horrifying stone gargoyles on the outsides of churches. 

Manhattan Clan of Worldwide Gargoyles, Cartoon TV Series. Source: (her.fandom.com)

Now…Gargoyles Starred in Their Own TV Show

During the 1990s, gargoyles were the main characters in a cartoon television series that ran for almost four years. Gargoyles followed the sometimes-dark and sinister lives of a group of New York City gargoyles from the Manhattan Clan of Worldwide Gargoyles, led by a gargoyle named Goliath. 

Ancient Egyptian Gargoyle. Source: (paulsmit.smugmug.com)

Then…Gargoyles Were a Version of an Egyptian Invention

Long before medieval architects mounted stone gargoyle water spouts on European cathedrals, the ancient Egyptians used decorative waterspouts carved in the shape of animals to divert rainwater from their buildings. But the oldest such rain spout ever discovered was found in Turkey and dates back more than thousands of years. 

Darth Vader Gargoyle, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

Now…There is a Gargoyle Modeled After Darth Vader

In the ‘80s, the people in charge of restoration at the Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital held a contest for kids to design a new gargoyle for atop the cathedral. In the 1980s, there was no fictional character quite as scary as Star Wars’ Darth Vader so a gargoyle designed in his likeness and submitted by 13-year-old Christopher Rader was selected as the winning entry. The Darth Vader gargoyle is located on the building's north side. 

Tags: medieval, gargoyles, statues, egyptian artwork

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