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Northstar Gallery

About Gargoyles


Gargoyle - Philadelphia Fire House

© Copyright 2001 Northstar Gallery



The word "Gargoyle" shares a common root with the word "Gargle"; which comes from "gargouille", an French word for "Throat". A true gargoyle is a waterspout. The word “gargoyle” is also a derivative from the Latin word, “gurgulio”, which had a double meaning, “throat”, and the “gurgling” sound water makes as it passes through a gargoyle. A carved creature that does not serve the purpose of a drain pipe is frequently referred to as a "Grotesque".  legend has it, that a fierce dragon named La Gargouille described as having a long, reptilian neck, a slender snout and membranous wings lived in a cave near the river Seine. The dragon caused much fear and destruction with its fiery breath, spouting water and the devouring of ships and men. Each year, the residents of Rouen would placate Gargouille with an offering of a victim, usually a criminal, though it was said the dragon preferred maidens. Around 600, the village was saved by St. Romanis, who promised to deal with the dragon if the townspeople agreed to be baptized and to build a church. Romanus subdued the dragon by making the sign of the cross and then led the now docile beast back to town on a leash made from his priest's robe. La Gargouille was then burned at the stake, it is said that his head and neck were so well tempered by the heat of his fiery breath, that they would not burn. These remnants were then mounted on the town wall and became the model for gargoyles for centuries to come. 3


Gargoyles Notre Dame

Mary Ann Sullivan, The Digital Imaging Project 

used with permission

Russell Sturgis, writing in Sturgis' Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture and Building, defines a gargoyle as a: A water spout, ... projecting from a gutter and intended to throw the water away from the walls and foundations. In medieval architecture, the gargoyles, which had to be very numerous because of the many gutters which were carried on the tops of flying buttresses, and higher and lower walls, were often very decorative, consisting, as they did, of stone images of grotesque animals, and the like, or, in smaller buildings of iron or lead. Many cultures throughout history have created sculptures of fantastic creatures. These figures stir our imaginations, as they stirred the imaginations of the carvers who lovingly created them. We struggle to understand and explain them, delving deep into the realms of psychology, culture, symbols, history and religion. One of the more common belief is that gargoyles served as protectors, keeping evil away from the buildings and their occupants. However, there seems to be much at work here and we can suspect that their reason to be, operates on a multitude of levels.

Gargoyles can be traced back 4000 years to Egypt, Rome and Greece. Terra cotta water spouts depicting: lions, eagles, and other creatures, including those based on Greek and Roman mythology, were very common. Gargoyle water spouts were even found at the ruins of Pompeii. The first grotesque figures came from Egypt. The Egyptians believed in deities with the heads of animals and frequently replicated these deities in their architecture and wall paintings. When the Greeks saw the Sphinx, they began to incorporate grotesques into their own beliefs. The Greeks believed in many grotesques such as harpies, centaurs, griffins, and chimeras. Greek architects would often place statues of animals called acroterium, in the forms of griffins, at each corner of the roof of their treasuries and temples. In Greek mythology, griffins guarded the gold of Scythia from the Arimaspians, a race of one eyed giants or Cyclops, who would try to steal the gold. 

Adrienne Mayor, in her book The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times,  presents evidence that ancient legends of monsters may be based on the discovery, by pre-Christian nomads',  of dinosaur bones in central Asia, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.

Mayor suggests; that the myth of the griffin, a winged lion with a birdlike beak, was inspired by the nomads' discoveries of fossilized bones of protoceratops, an animal that existed more than 65 million years ago.

The book has thrilled paleontologists by showing that their science dates from ancient times, much longer ago than previously thought. Mayor shows that ancient Greek and Roman researchers collected numerous fossils of large extinct mammals and displayed them in temples and museums. "There they identified fossils as the relics of giants, heroes and monsters of myth," she says. Some ancient writers argued that the enormity of the supposed "human" remains proved the human race had since "degenerated" or "run down," becoming smaller and weaker.

Mayor "has uncovered a barely noticed source for many of the myths of the Old World, and for the first time has assembled in an orderly way the evidence for early man's discovery of and explanations for fossil remains," says classical art historian Sir John Boardman of Oxford University. Thanks to her analysis, he says, many ancient "texts, sites, and pictures will never seem quite the same again."

The ancient bones' biggest impact was on popular culture. For example, many ancient Greek vases of the seventh through fifth centuries B.C. depict griffins.

A protoceratops (top) and a griffin (bottom) -

© Copyright The First Fossil Hunters 


Mayor says she'll never forget the moment when she began to suspect that the ancient images of griffins were based on reports of the discovery of protoceratops bones. "I was on the Greek island of Samos, not too far from the coast of Turkey. I was visiting the archaeological museum there, where I saw hundreds of bronze griffins that had been excavated from the temple on Samos,....The earliest depictions of griffins looked really gnarly and brutish. It looked as if the artist were trying to portray something real rather than mythological," she said. "And then in a flash, I realized that they looked like modern reconstructions of dinosaurs in a museum." Protoceratops, which lived in the twilight of the dinosaur age more than 65 million years ago, had a beak like a bird. At maturity, it was typically 8 feet long, about the size of a lion. It also had a bony "frill" at the back of the neck that the ancients could have mistaken for the roots of wings, she says. 2

Gargoyles and grotesques have always given carvers and sculptors a chance to delight in their creativity and to explore the possibilities in the dance between stone and imagination. Gargoyles freed carvers from the limits imposed by other types of carving, and this was especially true in the Middle Ages. It is certain that stone carvers love creating these pieces, and viewers certainly love seeing them. This may be one of the more compelling reasons they exist.

France has over 100 cathedrals, most built in the middle ages, with Notre Dame being the most famous. In the Middle ages, the populace, for the most part, could not read and write. Churches used visual images to spread  the scriptures and reinforce biblical stories. These included; paintings, frescos, stained glass, figures,  sculpture and gargoyles. Some believe that gargoyles were inspired directly via a passage in the bible. Others believe that gargoyles and grotesques do not come from the bible, but were inspired by the skeletal remains of prehistoric beasts. Others will argue that they are the expression of man's subconscious fears or, that they may be vestiges of paganism from an age when god would be perceived in trees and river plains. The churches of Europe carried them further into time; maybe to remind the masses that "even if god is at hand, evil is never far away and to act as guardians of their church to keep the evil spirits at bay. 3

 Notre Dame - The Last Judgment and the weighing of souls

Mary Ann Sullivan, The Digital Imaging Project 

used with permission

click on image for larger view

Francois Villon, a French writer in the late 1400's offered the following poem. The translation is from Ballade: As a Prayer to Our Lady in a collection of his known as The Testament as found in The Complete Works of Francois Villon. Ed. Anthony Bonner. 1964. p.68-69.


I am a woman old, poor, and ignorant,
who has never learned to read.
In my parish church I see
a painted Paradise with harps and lutes
and a Hell where the damned are boiled:
one frightens me-the other gives me joy and happiness.
Let me have that joy, high Goddess,
to whom all sinners in the end must come,
filled with faith, without idleness or pretense.
In this faith I wish to live and die.


Chartres Cathedral - Christ in Majesty with four apocalyptic beasts

Mary Ann Sullivan, The Digital Imaging Project 

used with permission

click on image for larger view




The Chartres Cathedral has approximately 4 000 sculpted figures, but above all it's the portals present stone work of incomparable quality. "The sculptors of the cathedral of Chartres are as anonymous as are its' architects. These artists were artisans working on order and not as individual craftsmen. The sculptors formed a trade association among the others. They worked as a group, around a master or overseer who very likely shared out the tasks in function of the aptitudes and competence of one or another while carrying out the major pieces himself." 11

During the 1200's when gargoyles first appeared in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was actively converting people of other faiths to Christianity. Since most people were not literate, images were very important in communicating ideas and telling the stories of the faith. Many of the religious images that non-Christians were accustomed to were of pagan origin and were of animals or mixtures of animals and humans. Integrating familiar images on churches and cathedrals was thought to encourage the populace to accept  the new religion and ease the transition from the old ways and old beliefs. 4

St. Bernard of Clairvaux-the 12th Century A.D. observed: "What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters under the very eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, strange savage lions and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man? 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." 5

Pope Gregory's instructions to St. Augustine regarding the conversion of the pagan people to Christianity offered additional incite into the role of gargoyles: "Destroy the idol. Purify the temples with holy water. Set relics there, and let them become temples of the true God. So the people will have no need to change their place of concourse, and, where of old they were wont to sacrifice cattle to demons, thither let them continue to resort on the day of the saint to where the Church is dedicated, and slay their beasts, no longer as a sacrifice but for social meal in honor of Him whom they now worship." Pope Gregory legitimized the integration of pre-Christian and pagan practices and symbols into the Christian church as a strategy to facilitate the peoples conversion to Christianity. 5

"During the Middle Ages, the church was a very central part of the lives of the people. The influence of the church was so great during the Middle Ages that even powerful nobles often yielded to its dictates. Deeds of mercy and justice performed by lords and barons were the result of respect for religion and fear of God. Many people during the early Middle Ages believed that the end of the world was coming soon, and many people regarded life on earth as a rather unimportant preliminary to the afterlife. To assure a place in heaven, everyone in the kingdom would do anything to please God, even help in the construction of their church in any way they could. The rich often gave gold, and the lower class would help by carting stones to the construction site. "Medieval man was convinced of a relationship between the Creation and his own creativity. To do work in or on the church "was an honor and a goal" 10. God had made man; therefore, what man made was only once removed from God and, accordingly, had to be worthy of Him" 9 p117. For this reason only skilled architects and craftsmen were allowed to work on the sculpturing and of the cathedral.. These skilled craftsmen possessed the skills necessary to create the detailed creatures known as gargoyles and grotesques. One way for the town's people to help the church was to aid in the building or the decoration of it. "The skills" of the people "were diverse, but all art had the same aim: to express in the created the glory of the Creator 9 p1178

The cathedral also served as a "sermon in stone" which could be "read" by an illiterate population. Some gargoyles clearly fill this instructional purpose by illustrating Bible stories such as Eve's reach for the apple and frightening images of eternal damnation. Since gargoyles were on the outside of the cathedral and scenes of the Bible and statues of Jesus, Mary and the Saints where common inside the building, this represented God's power to protect the believers. They also represented the struggle between good and evil and symbolized how God was the only protection from evil in a fallen world.

Gargoyles stand guard, warding off unwanted spirits and other creatures and If they're hideous and frightening enough, it was thought they would be especially effective in scaring off all sorts of other threatening creatures. Perhaps it was even believed that some came alive at night protecting people when they were most vulnerable. Better still, the ones with wings could fly and protect the village as well as the church. 

Gargoyles crafted during Medieval times became increasingly grotesque in design. Soon they were referred to as “chimeras” because of their representations of creatures that were not of this world - half man, and half bird or beast. These new incarnations were either depicted sitting on their haunches or poised to take flight. They also possessed over exaggerated muzzles or beaks and other odd appendages. They were positioned on a cornice molding so they projected forward and away from the building for a number of feet. In this way the gargoyle was able to spew water far from the building. "Although the demons and monsters so prevalent in cathedral sculpture may seem almost quaint to modern eyes, the men of the Middle Ages did not find them so. In a time when illiteracy was  almost a universal condition and belief in a literal, waiting Inferno prevailed, the purpose of most cathedral sculpture was not decorative but instructional. It was intended, to scare the hell out of its beholders, and there is every reason to believe it did a creditable job, presenting the horrors of damnation in living color (of which only faint traces remain today)." 2


The Gargoyle often makes his perch

On a cathedral or a church, 

Where, mid ecclesiastic style,

He smiles an early-Gothic smile.

                                              -Oliver Herford

One of the most notable examples of Gothic architecture that incorporated many gargoyles and grotesques is Notre Dame cathedral, in Paris. It is interesting to note, that; once lead drainpipes were introduced in the 16th century there was no longer any practical need for gargoyles. However, architects and builders continued to incorporate them into their building designs, but now gargoyles served only a symbolic, spiritual, religious, decorative or whimsical purposes.


Hindu Temple - India

© Copyright 1999 Northstar Gallery

Hindu Temples in India make extensive use of gargoyles in the form of the many Hindu Gods depicted on the temple structure. This image is from a Temple in Hydrabad and has hundreds of figures represented on its exterior. 



North America also has its fair share of gargoyles. They protect many of the older buildings in cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. University campuses are also prime “habitats” for gargoyles with Princeton and Duke Universities, being a good examples. There are 6 gargoyles at the old Headquarters of the Philadelphia Fire Department at 1328 Race Street Philadelphia, PA. These whimsical characterizations are outstanding examples of the use of gargoyles in modern times and capture the essence of what it means to be a fireman. 

© Copyright 1999 Northstar Gallery

A very common image represented in the genre of gargoyles and grotesques is the Green Man. He is one of the most common figures and he stares down at us from the roofs, pillars and doorways of our great cathedrals and churches all over the world. The Green Man appears on second century Roman columns and in Hindu temples in India. He is found all over England, Wales and Scotland. He is present in the great banks and financial houses of Wall  Street. His roots may go back to the hunters who painted the caves of Lascaux and Altimira. In one of his many manifestations as Robin Hood and the Morris Dances of Old England, he is chiseled in wood and cut into stone even to this day by men and women who no longer know his story but sense that something old and strong and tremendously important lies behind his leafy mask. One of the earliest English epic poems Gawain and The Green Knight may refer to another manifestation of the Green Man as the God that dies and is reborn This powerful theme of death and rebirth runs through all the diverse images and myths of the Green Man. In all, death and renewal are celebrated as the "Green" that represents all life.

Medusa is another image that shows up frequently as a grotesque. The Gorgons were three  sisters. Two of the sisters were  monstrous with huge teeth, brazen claws and snakey hair. Sthenno and Eurayale were immortal, but Medusa, the third was mortal. Medusa, was a beautiful maiden who's hair was her crowning glory. She was loved by the god Poseidon in the temple of Athena. Athena was deeply angered and turned Medusa into a monster and changed her glorious hair into snakes. Athena made Medusa so ugly that that anyone who looked at her was instantly turned to stone. All around Medusa's cavern were stone figures of men and animals which had risked a glimpse her and had been petrified with the sight.

Athena sent Perseus to slay Medusa, she lent him her shiny shield and Hermes lent him her winged shoes. Perseus approached Medusa while she slept and taking care not to look directly at her, guided by her image reflected in the bright shield, he cut off her head and gave it to Athena. In her ugliness, Medusa was the grand sculptor, a creator of gargoyles and grotesques, immortalizing  their flesh by turning it into stone?

Carl Jung observes "A symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. Symbols, moreover, are natural and spontaneous products. No genius has ever sat down with a pen or brush in  hand and invented a symbol. No one can take a more or less rational thought, reached as a logical conclusion or by deliberate intent, and than give it "symbolic form". There are many symbols, however, that are not individual but collective in their nature and origin. These are chiefly religious images. The believer assumes that they are of divine origin - that they have been revealed to man. The skeptic says flatly that they have been invented. Both are wrong. It is true, as the skeptic notes, that religious symbols and concepts have for centuries been the object of careful and quite conscious elaboration. It is equally true, as the believer implies, that their origin is so far buried in the mystery of the past that they seem to have no human source. But they are in fact "collective representations," emanating from primeval dreams and creative fantasies. As such, these images are involuntary spontaneous manifestations and by no means intentional inventions." 

The most likely truth is that all of these elements come together in explaining both the existence and our attraction to gargoyles and grotesques; the conscious, the unconscious, primitive religion, myth, Christian conversion, practicality and certainly the stone cutter's joy of creation. The images under consideration embody profound symbolic content from our "collective unconscious" and  are significant and enduring  symbolic manifestations of the human experience.

Stephen King in his introduction to Nightmares in the Sky states: "...This is rather ironic, because the lady with the snaky hair-do is probably more famous for turning folks to stone than she is for becoming a piece of sculpture herself...which she did. Medusa, a creature too horrible for mortals to look upon, offers at least this cold comfort: in the end, she was too horrible to look at herself. She, that queen of nightmares with her writhing crown of snakes, become the world's first real gargoyle.

But go back a second. The living, Medusa turned men from flesh to stone-prototype gargoyles, one must surely suppose, with faces stretched into goblin grimaces of horror. Faced with her own reflection, she became a stone monstrosity (her mouth open in a shriek from which dirty water might pour during rainy spells, one may also suppose), one which living men might look upon with no fear of their lives...but without fear for their sleep at least...and, at most, their sanity. I am suggesting that the gargoyles....may continue to perform their original function: to drain away that which might cause rot and erosion. Their horrible, stony faces offer a unique catharsis; when we look upon them and shudder, we create the exact reversal of the Medusa myth; we are not flesh turned to stone, but flesh proving it is flesh still, if only by the bumps that cool flush of fear always produces. It is not too much to say that great art, no matter how primitive, constantly recreates the imagination, and keeps it from turning to stone....Look closely, because we see these ominous lares of the human psyche so seldom. They are there, these nightmares, but thy are in the sky. Look closely, because even when you don't see them...they are watching you."1

Gargoyle and Grotesques Links

bd14868_.gif (419 bytes)  Gargoyles From Around the World

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1. Fitzgerald, f-stop. Nightmares in the Sky p35

2. Jacobs, Jay. Great Cathedrals p48

3. Adrienne Mayor., The First Fossil Hunters

3. Gargoyles, Dragons, and Other Formations

4. Gargoyle Etymology & History

5. Gargoyles Then and Now

6. Mary Ann Sullivan The Digital Imaging Project 

7. Jung, Carl. (1964). Man and His Symbols p55

8. John J. Triggs, Gargoyles in Medeival and Gothic Art 

9. Fremantle, Anne. Age of Faith

10. Mediaeval Culture

11. The Cathedral of Cartes


William Anderson The green man Harper Collins 1990

Jules Adeline Les sculptures grotesques et symboliques E. Auge, 36 Rue Grosse Horloge 1878

Francis B. Andrews The medieval mason and his methods 1922 (reprinted Dover 1999)

R. Bernheimer Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology Harvard University Press 1952

John Blackwood Windsor Castle's Gargoyles and Grotesques Charon Press 1988

Lester Burbank Bridaham Gargoyles, Chimeres and the Grotesques in French Gothic Sculpture Da Capa Press (New York) 1969

Richard N. Bailey England's earliest sculptors Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies 1996 

Richard N. Bailey Ambiguous birds and beasts Friends of the Whithorn Trust 1996 

Kathleen Basford 'Quest for the Green Man’ in Symbols of power, H.R. Ellis Davidson (ed), D.S. Brewer 1977

Kathleen Basford The green man Brewer 1978 [reprinted 1996]

Janetta Rebold Benton Holy terrors - gargoyles on medieval buildings Abbeville Press 1997

J.H. Betty and C.W.G. Taylor Sacred and satiric: medieval stone carving in the West Country Redcliffe 1982

John Billingsley Stony gaze - Investigating Celtic and other stone heads Capall Bann 1998

John Blackwood Oxford's gargoyles and grotesques Charon Press 1986

Lester Burbank Bridaham, Gargoyles, Chimeres and the Grotesque in French Gothic Sculpture. Da Capo Press Series in Architecture and Decorative Art, Vol 21. New York : Da Capo Press, 1969.

Joseph Campbell .   The Power of Myth.   Apostrophe S Productions, Inc., United States 1988

The Cathedral of Cartes http://www.chartres-csm.org/us_fixe/index.html

f -stop Fitzgerald.  Nightmares in the Sky. Penguin Books Ltd, England  1988

Jay Jacobs, Great Cathedrals,American Heritage Publishing. New York, 1968

Carl Jung.   Man and His Symbols. London: Aldus Books Limitted. 1964

Fremantle, Anne. Age of Faith. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.

Sacheverell Sitwell, Gothic Europe.New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

Jay Jacobs, ed., The Horizon Book of Great Cathedrals. New York : American Heritage Publishing Co., 1968.

Adrienne Mayor., The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times:

Gargoyles, Dragons, and Other Formations http://www.gothicgallery.com/www-gothicgallery-com/AboutGargoyles.htm

Gargoyle Etymology & History http://www.stratis.demon.co.uk/gargoyles/gg-ety-hist-myth.htm#gargoyle_mythical

Gargoyles Then and Now 



John J. Triggs, Gargoyles in Medeival and Gothic Art  http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Dungeon/5051/gargoyles.html

Maurice Francis Egan Glories of the Catholic Church in Art, Architecture and History DH McBride & Co. 1896

Aron Gurevich Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception trans. J.M. Bak, Cambridge UP 1988

Ivan Karp et al. Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture Smithsonian 1992

E. Langton Essentials of Demonology London 1949

Emile Male L'art religieux de la fin du moyen age en France Armand Colin, 103 Boul. Saint Michel 1920

Susan M. Pearce Museums, Objects, and Collections: A Cultural Study Smithsonian 1992

Ronald Sheridan and Anne Ross Grotesques and Gargoyles: Paganism in the Medieval Church David and Charles 1975


Mary Ann Sullivan The Digital Imaging Project  http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/index/index3.html

J.H. Vaux The Canterbury Monsters Mereborough Books 1989

Barbara G. Walker, The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1988.

Mediaeval Culture." Online.Infoseek: http://web.lemoyne.edu/museums/ begieral/cult.html Nov. 

John Harvey. The English Cathedrals. New York: Hasting House, 1956.

Martin Hürlimann, and Peter Meyer. English Cathedrals. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950.

Janson, H.W., and Anthony F. Janson. History of Art. 5th Ed. Rev. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997.

Jordan, Furneaux R. The World of Great Architecture, From the Greeks to the Nineteenth Century. New York: The Viking


bd14868_.gif (419 bytes)  Gargoyles From Around the World

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