Gargoyles in architecture: history, significance, features, mythology

Gargoyles in architecture have been known since Ancient Egypt. 

Are gargoyles decorative or functional?

In architecture, the gargoyle is designed to divert rainwater from the roof and from the wall of the building. This element performs an important function: it protects the masonry from being destroyed by rain flows.

The term is used most often in connection with medieval Gothic buildings. But history has preserved examples of the use of these elements in the architecture of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Etruscans… The worldview of people gives this element in the architecture magical properties and, at the same time, a decorative load.

History of the use of gargoyles in architecture

Gargoyles in the architecture of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian architecture has examples of gargoyles used on temple buildings. Most of the roofs of Egyptian buildings were flat and used as extra space. In temples, the roof was covered with tightly fitting slabs of stone. Depressions for collecting water ran along the entire length of the roof and ended with gutters.

From the time of Niusserre (2453-2422 BC) they often took the form of the front of reclining lions. But unlike medieval gargoyles, water did not come out of their mouths, but flowed between their front paws. The ancient Egyptians gave the images magical powers to protect buildings from the god Seth and his storms.

How ordinary Egyptians solved this problem in their homes before our era is unknown.

Gargoyles in the architecture of Ancient Greece

Hybrid creatures such as harpies, centaurs, griffins and chimeras were part of the worldview of the ancient Greeks. Statues of griffins were placed on every corner of the roofs of their temples and treasuries as guards.

Myths tell how the griffins guarded the gold of Scythia from the Arimaspians (a tribe of horsemen of normal human stature with one eye in the middle of their foreheads), who were constantly trying to steal the treasure.

The gutters in ancient Greek architecture were made of ceramic tiles and ended with carved lion heads made of marble. Rainwater flowed down the gutter and out of the open mouth of a lion. These beasts were a symbol of power. Their magical function was to protect the building and its inhabitants from enemies and ward off evil spirits.

For example, preserved 39 of 102 such gargoyles from the Temple of Zeus, the largest in the Peloponnese. Many art historians call this building a perfect example of Doric architecture (470 – 456 BC). (source)

Gargoyles in medieval architecture

The construction of the great churches and cathedrals of the Middle Ages took several centuries. Because they were made of cheaper material, the gargoyles quickly wore out and were replaced by new ones. This fact does not allow us to establish the time of the first gargoyles.

The 19th-century neo-Gothic ideologue and founder of architectural restoration, French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc says that the earliest medieval gargoyles appear on the cathedral of Laon, France, around 1200-1220. (source)

The shapes of medieval gargoyles changed over the years. Increasing in length, some of the later examples reach up to one meter. At the end of the 13th century, the figures became more complex. From the 14th century they became very detailed and, often, caricatured. The 15th century produced even more amusing and less demonic images.

But the most famous examples are the gargoyles of Notre Dame de Paris. This term refers to all grotesque depictions of the building, including chimeras, which do not perform the function of a spillway. But it should be noted that this decoration came much later.  For the mystery of the chimeras and gargoyles of this cathedral and the most famous of them, see the article The Gargoyles of Notre Dame on the Zen Channel Architecture.

Why were Christian cathedrals decorated with gargoyles?

At the height of the Gothic period, the influence of the Catholic Church in Europe grew at the expense of the ignorance and superstition of the people. Most people were illiterate. The Church used amazing visual images such as gargoyles, stained-glass windows, and sculptures to illustrate the scriptures.

There is an opinion that they remind us, “even though God is near, evil never slumbers,” or of the need to protect one’s church.

Some believe that the image of gargoyles came directly from the Bible (St. George and the dragon). Some note the adaptation of pagan imagery to the Christian faith to convert to Catholicism.

Others hold the view that gargoyles and grotesques are inspired by the skeletal remains of prehistoric animals such as dinosaurs and giant reptiles. Psychologists would argue that the horrible forms are an expression of man’s subconscious fears.

While most priests accepted gargoyles as decorations for religious buildings, there were opponents of such decorations. For example, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), abbot of a monastery of the Cistercian order, wrote:

“What are these fantastic monsters doing in monasteries before the eyes of the reading brethren? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, strange wild lions and monsters? For what purpose are these creatures, half-beasts, half-humans, here? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a four-legged one with the head of a snake, there a fish with the head of a four-legged one, then again an animal, half horse, half goat … If we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret having wasted our energy on them.”

Gargoyles were used until the early 18th century. Since that time, more and more buildings have been made with drainpipes. In 1724 the London Building Act, passed by the British Parliament, made the use of down pipes mandatory for all new constructions in the country.

Houses with gargoyles today

Gargoyles are still installed today, but these days they serve purely decorative rather than sacred purposes and are found on university and secular buildings.

Although grotesques on modern structures are not designed to drain water and are therefore not technically gargoyles, most people call them that.

Grotesques were used as decoration on 19th and early 20th century buildings in cities such as New York City (e.g., the stainless steel gargoyles of the Chrysler Building), Minneapolis, and Chicago. Gargoyles can be found on many modern churches and other Art Nouveau, Neo-Gothic or Eclectic buildings.

Now, the purpose of gargoyles is to entertain. And this theme is widely exploited by the creators of computer games, cartoons and horror films.

After all, what is a gargoyle?

A gargoyle is a grotesquely carved face or figure of a person or animal, protruding from the gutter of a building to drain rainwater. These days it is used as decoration. It is essentially NOT a gargoyle.

If the sculpture installed does not serve the function of the gutter, but is installed as artistic decoration, its correct name is chimera or grotesque. There are also regional variations, such as punk.

By the way, gargoyles are often used to decorate fountains.

Gargoyles: the mythology of France

The French legend of the Gargoyle, a fire-breathing dragon with wings like bats and a long neck, explains the fact that gargoyles appeared on Christian churches.

Saint Roman (fr. Romain), former Chancellor of the Merovingian King Clotaire II (Chlothar) (631 – 641 A.D.), saves the people of Rouen from a monster named Gargoyle or Goji.

It is said that the monster lived nearby in a cave and terrorized the locals, either by swallowing ships that sailed down the Seine or by starting a flood or fire. Every year human sacrifices, maidens or convicts were to be brought to it. St. Roman tamed the creature with crucifixion and prayer, depriving him of his will when he lured a volunteer condemned to death out of the cave for bait. The body of the dragon was burned at the stake, but the head and throat did not burn: for the dragon was fire-breathing. They were nailed to the wall of a newly built church for the edification of other dragons. And Roman was made bishop. Since then, each archbishop of this land has the right to release one prisoner on the day of the saint. And dragons do not settle in these lands.

It was a time when royalty sought the support of the clergy to satisfy their political ambitions, to conquer new lands.

Now you know how gargoyles in architecture reflected the worldview of peoples, their characteristics and purpose in different time periods.