Meaning of Gargoyles? - Do they represent Something? - Why are Gargoyles on Churches?
There isn’t a piece in our Gallery that is more controversial than our Gargoyles. We get more comments on Gargoyles than anything else. Some people associate them with the Devil and consider them evil or Demonic in some way. Others believe they have a Talisman like purpose, to ward off evil. I have to admit, there is some sort of magnetic attraction with gargoyles. A bit of mystery and the unknown. People are just drawn to them for many different reasons. They are just so different and strange. This Article is not going to cover the history of Gothic or European Architecture. It will be focused on the religious aspect of the Gargoyles themselves. As the Gargoyle is primarily centered around Gothic Churches starting in the early 1200s. We will also look at the Talisman (ward off evil), chimera and other possible links to these interesting creatures that adorn the medieval and early Renaissance churches.
The Name and Function
When the great Gothic Cathedrals were being built. The terms Gargoyle and Gothic were not terms used in the middle ages. These names came later as Historians and architects started putting names to things. The Term Gargoyle comes from old French gargouiller as to gargle or Bubble up. #1
One can see why this term was used to describe Gargoyles. As many gargoyles had drainpipes incorporated into them. As water ran through the tubes, water bubbled as it went down. Most gargoyles stick out about 3 feet away from the sides of the cathedrals. This prevented the water from eroding the masonry in the structure. As far as functioning as a drain trough a pipe goes it was simple, to keep the water off the side of the building. There were no downspouts as we would think of them today. The water was just diverted away from the building about 3 feet and then dropped to the ground. So the purpose of diverting the rain away from the building is clear. As to why they incorporated gargoyle figurines around those drain tubes is a mystery. Gargoyles are truly fascinating to most people. The Cathedral of Notre Dame has no less than 5000 gargoyles on it. Today gargoyles are considered national treasures. They are constantly being restored and patched. Metal pipe work has been added to some of the gargoyles to help get the water farther away from the building and protecting the gargoyles farther down. They have also added cables to some of the gargoyles to take the weight off of them and prevent further cracking and damage. Pollution is also a factor in the gargoyles deterioration. Acid rain eats its way into the stone and pits it so that they hold water and moss as well as other plant life. Where the roots of small plants can grow and cause more cracking. Preserving them has become a major concern for these age old structures. The Gothic cathedrals of France and Germany are huge tourist attraction as well as the gargoyles themselves. Sadly enough, nature has had its way with many of these architectural elements that adorn the sides of these cathedrals.
Another Name or Two
There are also other types of gargoyles that are loosely termed grotesques.The grotesques have nothing to do with water or diverting water. They were just sculptured figurines of animals, humans, and mixed combinations. This resulted in bizarre looking creatures like the gargoyle but are not waterspouts.There seems to be no limit to the kinds of animals used. Lions, dogs, goats, birds, reptiles the list goes on. Some Gargoyles and Grotesques have human features as well. Things like fingers and toes as well as human facial features. A homogenized mix resulting in creatures so strange that architects, historians and theologians have scratched their heads for centuries. Wondering why these fanciful creatures adorn these medieval churches. Professionals from their various disciplines have not elaborated on gargoyles, for good reason too. If you were a working professional in a specific field of expertise. The last thing you want to do is try and give an explanation to something so fanciful and bizarre. I can imagine this raising some eyebrows around the company table. So the gargoyles go unexplained as there is no written record of why they were made. The Chimera or Chimaera ( Greek khimaira she-goat or he-goat) [ki-meer-uh] Often the Gargoyle is associated with the Greek Chimera or Chimaera and used interchangeably with Gargoyle. The Chimera is a creature from Greek mythology that was a fire breathing creature with the body and head of a Lion. It had a second head of a goat, and a tail that was a viper. The Chimera is from Homers’ famous Greek story Iliad. As the great myth goes Bellerophon defeated the chimera while riding on a Pegasus with a spear that had a lump of lead at the end. # 2
The story is from antiquity and predates gargoyles by at least a millennium. The popularity of homers Iliad made it easy for people to reference the Chimera name. It is used loosely to fit gargoyles and grotesques even though the chimera was Greek in origin and the gargoyles Christian in origin. So a bit confusing but we have to start with a name somewhere. However historically figurative downspouts are referred to as Gargoyles. One more Gargoyle to our list is the Greenman or sometimes called the Vegetable Gargoyle but he will be another topic.
Are They Demons?
This is an age-old question do the gargoyles represent the devil in some way. After looking at several you can see why people get that feeling of evil or the devil. They have horns and wings like a bat, so they must be evil right? They look like a demon if I ever saw one? With body parts all mixed together from different animals and even body parts of people it has to be evil? Right?
“Holy Terrors” a book by that name tells us that gargoyles are evil or demonic in some way. At fist look that would seem so, the demon position is a rational one. As I’ve heard it all too often from people. “It is likely that the frightening nature of gargoyles was partly due to the medieval artist’s responsibility to help mold public behavior through intimidating images.”#3
Here were being told, the artists / sculptors are responsible and were allowed basically to build the Cathedrals the way they wanted to, which I highly doubt. Lost souls perhaps “It has also been suggested that some gargoyles may represent souls condemned for their sins and therefore forbidden from entering the church.” #4 That would be odd, I thought the church was for salvation.
“As monstrous creatures leap out from the top of the buttress, the people cringe in terror.”#5
Again in a threatening way ”As gargoyles are always looking down on passersby…” However most gargoyles and grotesques are to high they are not seen at all. Many are in hidden places that require special access from the church, to get a view of them. With Gothic cathedrals towering 300 feet in some cases. The gargoyles appear like a small speck to the naked eye, when they are at that height. So not so terrifying if you can't see them. The book also states that “characteristics of the medieval mentality was a willingness to freely interpret reality, as well as fantasy, according to religious symbols.” # 6
Again pushing the responsibility back onto the artist that sculpted them. Looking at the cathedrals with their complexity and feats of engineering. I would say they had a pretty good grasp on reality. We will look closer at the cathedrals and just a bit.
Why is it that at particular time in history the builders of Christian churches started adding gargoyles to their cathedrals for some unknown reason? It is clear that they communicated in some way their ideas of design, engineering and structure style. Churches in Germany, France, Italy and others throughout Europe. All seem to have gotten the same idea about the same time: Is to have high ceilings, flying buttresses and gargoyles to incorporate into their cathedrals. The communication system back then was very limited to the local area but it is quite clear that they communicate what they were doing and why they were doing it with other parts of Europe. It’s as if they all agreed to do the same thing at the same time. For whatever reason it was done by the people in several different regions began to use the same methods building their beautiful cathedrals.
A Didactic Tool
A didactic tool is a item used to help people learn something, like a symbol or a statue. Something that people can look at and relate to, and help them learn. Let’s say you wanted to teach somebody about the geometric shape of a cylinder. It would be a little difficult - but if you had a soda can you could show it to them and they would relate to it easier. As It comes from are their everyday life. So the gargoyles would represent a pagan deity that the non-Christians or pagans could relate to and wonder into the church. Kind of like a giant billboard for non-Christians. A pagan would then walk into the church only to be confronted by clergy and hopefully be converted to Christianity. This seems to make sense to some, as it’s helps with construction of the cathedral, knowing the clergy was involved in the design and construction of the church. And that they were well aware of the gargoyles being incorporated into the structure. Again we’re back to the height of those gargoyles*. Most of them being too high in the air to recognize as much of anything. If these gargoyles were in fact didactic tools, you would think. They would have left them much closer to the ground so they could be recognized as a pagan deity.
* (see special note)
I want to cover the Gothic Cathedrals first before we get into gargoyles. As I think it’s important to understanding other architectural elements that went into these enormous Cathedrals. We need to understand that other parts of the Cathedral that are just as important as the gargoyles. When it comes to defining gargoyles and their meaning, we must look at the Cathedral as a whole. These are well-designed and planned structures. Everything had a purpose even the gargoyles had to be planned into the structures. The meaning of gargoyles is coming, I promise.
The CathedralsThe Gothic Cathedral Notre Dame have no less than 5000 gargoyles on it. Its height is over 300 feet. Is an architectural wonder of the world. Attracts over 13 million visitors a year. Is over 800 years old and took over 180 years to build. Considered a national treasure. The architecture is fantastic so breath taking. The Gothic arch (the arch to comes to a point) that allowed for more head room. So the sanctuaries and aisle could vault up. It’s these vaulted ceilings that created the need for the flying buttress. Many buildings have buttresses that help strengthen the wall. It was easier to build a buttress than make an entire wall twice as thick, to hold the roofs weight. That was often covered in lead sheets. When the Gothic arch was implemented, things got more complicated. Unlike the Roman arch which transferred its weight down through the walls. The Gothic arch pushed outward on the walls. This arch being much heavier than the Roman type arch caused a weight problem for the bottom of the structure. That is the bottom layers of stone in the cathedral walls would crack due to the added weight of the higher Gothic arch (Lancet). This also allowed for an entire wall to be open for stained glass windows. The flying buttress was engineered to not only hold the walls vertically as the Gothic arch pushed out on them. The flying buttress also transfer the weight of the ceiling down through the flying buttress to the ground. The flying buttress first appears in the book of Ezekiel 41: 6-7 as a means to reinforce the walls and keep the sanctuary open. The same applies to the Gothic cathedrals, they wanted the sanctuary open all the way to the ceiling. So the builders of the Gothic church relied heavily on the flying buttress to achieve their open sanctuaries. One gets completely awestruck when they see the Gothic churches in traceries. These structures were well thought out. Plans, designs and engineering went into them years before the first stone was laid. If that were not the case, these buildings would have fallen down centuries ago.
The Cathedral represented the center of the community and worship. The builders had more zeal and faith than are average church goer today. These were people that worked on the construction of their church for their entire lives and never saw it completed. Their children and children's - children before it was completed. Every time I see a Gothic church with all its splendor, I think of the people that built it and there sheer zeal that they had for their God. One can get overwhelmed with Gothic architecture at first glance we see large stained-glass windows, flying buttresses, grand hallways, beautiful sanctuaries and of course the gargoyles are there too. Sometimes we overlook the fact that there are other sculpted figures on the cathedrals as well. These other sculptures would include Christ, the apostles, angels other animals (non- gargoyles) of creation. They also contain scenes of biblical events carved in them as well as bible stories. So the entire church is like a giant storybook of Christianity. But what about those gargoyles do they fit in there somewhere?
The talisman is probably the most popular. I hear this by far more people than anything else. That is gargoyles ward off evil. That the gargoyle statue has some sort of supernatural power that drives away evil spirits or something to that effect. This is upsetting to me to believe that are overly zealous Cathedral builders and boy did they have zeal. That they would put their faith and trust into a statue (an Idol) and abandon Christ the core of Christianity. That is their faith would be in statues instead of their Christian God and Jesus. Ultimately turning the divine power of God over to gargoyles. Rather that God and Christ could not protect the church. Surely that is an insult to our builders and an insult to God. Let's not belittle the builds to pagan idolatry - to a lesser god. Let’s take a closer look at those gargoyles.
Interesting Gargoyle Facts
Some interesting facts about Gargoyles and Grotesques
- On the exterior of the building and not on the interior.
- Hand carved from a single block. Half of the block is hidden in the building as a counterweight.
- Not likely to be lower than 30 feet from the ground.
- Most always on the outer Nave of the building.
- Almost always on the wall with stained glass windows.
- Around most windows and at the top of the arch.
- Mostly located on the east side of building (sunrise side).
- Most Gargoyles to high to be seen from the ground.
- Some Gargoyles so secluded unless you climb out a window onto roof to see it.
- Have found their way onto the Tower of Big Ben, Britain’s House of Parliament, the Chrysler Building, National Cathedral in DC, Grace Cathedral, and many more.
- Usually in clusters not in isolation
- Not all gargoyles were animals some were people
- Considered national historic treasures
Your Author's Thoughts
My background is in theology and from there I draw from, for my explanation on gargoyles and the grotesques. (Yes I’m going to get flack for this I know).
Heaven on Earth
I write this for all the little old ladies who beat me over the head with a gargoyle statue, telling me it was the devil and that we should not have them in our store.
As we saw earlier Gargoyles adorn the magnificent Gothic Churches. They also have carved Bible scenes, Apostles, saints and depictions of real animals as well. “Thus the great cathedrals of Chartres and Rheims even now have some five thousand figures, scattered about or grouped together in various parts, beginning with the history of the creation of the world and all the wondrous incidents of the first chapter of Genesis and thence the history through the whole of the Old Testament. In these sculptures the story of redemption is told, as set forth in the New Testament, with a distinctness and at the same time with an earnestness, almost impossible to surpass… Over all these are seen the heavenly host, with saints, angels, and archangels. In the middle ages, when books were rare and those who could read them rarer still, this sculpture was certainly most valuable as a means of popular education”.#7
It’s these pictorial scenes that have had theologians refer to the Gothic churches as “The Bible in Stone” -“The cathedral represented the super naturalistic spirit of the age clearly by its dominating position in the town and by its symbolic expression of biblical truth. The social solidarity of medieval man was expressed by the fact that the great cathedrals were built as a community enterprises extending over decades, with all ranks and classes taking part in the work”#8
With the heavenly scenes depicted in the cathedrals, all the precision and the sheer zeal the people of the time had for their religion. The Gothic churches becoming a didactic instrument and a type of “Heaven on Earth” One would think that the gargoyles would fit into the heavenly scene somewhere. If we look to the bible at some of the heavenly scenes we find our answer.
Bible of the Time
The Bible of the the times is the common link between the churches of that era. Since the gargoyles first appeared on Gothic cathedrals. It would follow that the Bible of the time may play an important role in identifying these creatures that adorn the churches of the day. Before we look at the Bible of the time we need to look at the language that was spoken and read at the time of the building of these great cathedrals. It is important also to note that illiteracy was really high in the Middle Ages. The most common language spoken was Latin or Medieval Latin (Church Latin). The Bible of the times was called the Vulgate. Jerome translated the Vulgate in 392 A.D. Which was a collection of old Latin books called the Vetus Lina, into the new Latin. This became the Vulgate. Today the Vulgate is sometimes referred to as the Catholic Bible. It’s important to know that there were many other books and writings in the Judeo Christian world at the time. One of the more famous would be the Septuagint, which is sometimes written LXX which stands for the 70 elders who translated the Old Testament. The Septuagint was translated to meet the need of non Greek speaking people, that wanted to learn of the Jewish God. #11
The septuagint was originally a Greek translation of the Jewish Torah or sometimes called the Pentateuch or rather the first five books of the Bible. A short time later the Septuagint, grew to also included other books like the rest of the Old Testament (which was in Hebrew) and the Apocrypha books. Another collection of books called the Pseudepigrapha , a huge collection of books dating from that Judeo Christian era. I don’t want to get too sidetracked on these books. I just want to make you aware that they exist and were in use during the Middle Ages. The Vulgate of Jerome had the apocryphal books in it. All this is to say that the Bible of the times was a bit different than ours. These other books I mention, have caused great tension in the Christian church. These books are one of the things that divide the church primarily being Catholic and Protestant as to which books are canonized and which are not. Today the Apocrypha books have gotten more attention and are being included in more Bibles. The more contemporary term for them is Deuterocanonical or inter-testament books.
In the KJV of the Bible, the book of Revelation ( Rev 4:6-8 KJV) depicts a heavenly scene. In this scene John the apostle sees four beasts. One beast resembling a lion. The second resembling a calf. The third has the face of a man and the fourth was like a flying Eagle. Each with wings and full of eyes. There has been much debate among Bible Scholars as to the identity of these beast. Could these ”beast” of revelation and elsewhere in the Bible be what our Gothic builders had in mind? They are lofty (in heaven), bizarre and come in many forms. “The translation beasts is quite inaccurate and should be changed to “The living ones” #12
The living ones is a more accurate description of the beasts. As the description is based on the Greek from the bible and the Septuagint. So with Gothic architecture being a Romanesque one. 13
We can see the Gothic peoples of the time drawing on the biblical Greek so build their “Bible in stone”
As we look again at the Living Creatures and their Greek descriptions we find some interesting details of these Heavenly beings. As we have seen earlier, that beast is an Inaccurate term for these beings. Dr. John Walvoord writes the following. “ In Greek the word used is zoon, which means “Living Ones”. An entirely different word, therion, meaning “a beast,” such as a wild animal, is used in Revelation 13 to speak of the beast coming out of the sea” # 14.
The word zoon appears 20 times and is where we get our word zoo or zoological (combined animals). “The same word occurs twelve times in the first ten chapters of Ezekiel where it is uniformly rendered living creature. From its use in Ezekiel it is clear that the living creatures are identical with the Cherubim, for in Ezekiel 10:15 the prophet testifies: “ The Cherubims were lifted up. This is the living creature that I saw by the river of Chebar.” And to make this identity doubly sure he adds in Ezekiel 10:20 “This is the living creature I saw under the God of Israel by the river of Chebar; and I knew that they were the cherubims ”. “Cherubims” as in the Authorized Version is a double plural.” (animals mix with animals together as one).#15
It should also be noted that. “ The Cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision we're complex creatures. Each one hand four faces and four wings and the overall appearance could be likened to a man (1:5-6), “not that of the mythological winged sphinx of Assyrian-type lion, as is claimed by liberal historicism” #16.
Also these creatures had bilateral symmetry. With their three sets of wings on their bodies. Whereas the chimera did not have bilateral symmetry but was profane in its nature.So what is the purpose of the Cherubims in their Heavenly realm? “Their main purpose and activity might be summarized in this way:” They are proclaimers and protectors of God’s glorious presence, His sovereignty, and His holiness.” #17
They also appear to have a permanent position in the presence of God. “Since they are nowhere sent from God’s presence but are confined to the seat of the divine habitation and the manifestation of the Divine Being,…”#18.
They guard and forbid the entrance to Eden (paradise) Gen 3:24. They are around the throne of God Rev 4:6, They Praise God Rev 4:8-9, 5:11, They introduce the seventh seal judgments Rev: 6:1-17,18:1-5. They give seven golden bowls to the seven angels Rev 15:7. They command the golden bowls to be poured out Rev 16:1. So it would appear there is a hierarchy in the heavenly realm with the living creatures (Cherubim) being higher in authority over angels. How awestruck must Ezekiel and the apostle John been when they had these heavenly visions. So too must have been our Gothic builders when they put theses heavenly scenes in stone.
I think this really helps us understand the meaning and purpose of gargoyles. It keeps them in their Christian context and does not make them evil. However as time went on I think the gargoyles were exploited and turned into something else and not understood. A final note: People sometimes associate horns with the devil. When they see gargoyles with horns they immediately make it related to Satan. From a book on Gothic Gargoyles "Many of these have leathery, bat like wings, so we can assume that the devil is being suggested." #19.
This is the secular view of the Devil. Here the basic question is "Does the devil have horns". Well yes and no, The horns Satan has are sometimes translated horns and sometimes pipes Ezekiel 28:13 and they are not on his head. In the same verse he also has tabrets (drums). His body is a musical instrument. This also gets confusing with different translations. As some translations render it differently. Some translations render it horns or pipes. Still other translations render it "settings" and "mountings". A good way to look it would be a decorative musical pipe. The Horns like a bull's horn in this case is of course interchangeable as a physical horn that could be used as a musical instrument. In the book Jubilees a pseudepigrapha book, sometimes referred to as the “Little Genesis”. Satan actually plays music for the people. His body is a musical instrument. He is also a beautiful and powerful cherub Ezekiel 28:12–17
- #1 Thorndike and Barnhart, 1995
- #2 Gods, Men and Monsters, Michael Gibson pg 129 – 132
- #3 Janetta Rebold Benton, Holy Terrors pg.24
- #4 Janetta Rebold Benton, Holy Terrors pg.25
- #5 Janetta Rebold Benton, Holy Terrors pg.25
- #6 Janetta Rebold Benton, Holy Terrors pg.21
- #7 James Fergusson, Part 2 Book 2 Chapter 64
- #8 Christianity Through The Centuries, pg. 242-243
- #9 Dr. John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, pg.109
- #12 Gentz, Dictionary of Bible and Religion, pg. 954
- #13 Gentz, Dictionary of Bible and Religion, pg. 407
- #14 Dr. John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, pg. 109
- #15 Dr. Jacob Smith, A Revelation of Jesus Christ, pg. 108
- #16 Dr. C Fred Dickason, Angels Elect and Evil pg. 63
- #17 Dr. C Fred Dickason, Angels Elect and Evil pg. 63
- #18 Dr. C Fred Dickason, Angels Elect and Evil pg. 63
- #19 Bill Yenne, Gothic Gargoyles pg. 46
With the gargoyles being so high up and out of sight. Many more hidden and tucked away never to be seen. It would seem very likely that they were just that, not to be seen by men. It could very well be that these are met for God's eyes only.