What Is a Gargoyle?

Maybe the Best Part of Gothic Architecture

A newly carved gargoyle on Westminster Abbey's Chapter House in London, England
A newly carved gargoyle on Westminster Abbey's Chapter House in London, England. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

A gargoyle is a waterspout, usually carved to resemble an odd or monstrous creature, that protrudes from a structure's wall or roofline. By definition, a real gargoyle has a function—to throw rainwater away from a building.

Where do gargoyles come from?

The word gargoyle is from the Greek gargarizein meaning to "wash the throat." Our word "gargle" comes from the same Greek derivation—so think of yourself as a gargoyle when you swish your mouth, gurgling and gargling with your mouthwash.

In fact, the word gurgoyle was commonly used in the 19th century, most notably by British author Thomas Hardy in Chapter 46 of Far From the Madding Crowd (1874).

The oldest gargoyles have been found in present-day Egypt from the Fifth Dynasty, c. 2400 BC. The functional and practical waterspout has also been found in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Gargoyles in the shape of dragons are found in China's Forbidden City and imperial tombs from the Ming Dynasty.

Are Gargoyles Gothic?

Waterspouts became more ornate toward the end of the Romanesque architectural period. The Middle Ages was a time of Christian pilgrimage, often with the pillaging of sacred relics. Sometimes cathedrals were specially built to house and protect sacred bones, such as those of Saint-Lazare d'Autun in France. Protective animal gargoyles, in the shape of pigs and dogs, are not only waterspouts, but act as symbolic protection at the 12 century Cathédrale Saint-Lazare d'Autun.

The sculpting of the functional gargoyle became especially popular in the Gothic building boom across Europe, so gargoyles have come to be associated with this architectural era. French architect Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) extended this association to Gothic-Revival as he creatively restored the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral with many of the famous gargoyles and "grotesques" seen today.

Art Deco gargoyles can be seen atop the 1930 Chrysler Building in New York City, although the eagle protrusions have been called "hood ornaments" by some enthusiasts. By the 20th century, "gargoyle" functionality as waterspouts had evaporated.

What are Grotesques?

As the functional waterspout aspect of gargoyles diminished, the creatively monstrous sculpting grew. What is called a gargoyle may also be called a grotesquery, meaning that it is grotesque. These grotesque sculptures can suggest monkeys, devils, dragons, lions, griffins, humans, or any other creature. Language purists may reserve the word gargoyle only for the objects that serve the practical purpose of directing rain water from the roof.

Where to Find Gargoyles

Gothic cathedrals are known for their gargoyles, but gargoyles can also be found on modern-day buildings such as the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Care and Maintenance of Gargoyles and Grotesques

Because gargoyles are by definition on the exterior of buildings and subject to natural elements, their deterioration is imminent. Most of the gargoyles we see today are reproductions.

Gargoyle Pictures

  • Gargoyle Tour of the National Cathedral, Washington, DC
  • Milan Duomo Gargoyle, Italy
  • Gargoyle at Mission San Luis Rey, California
  • Gargoyle in Old-Town Barcelona, Spain
  • Gargoyle at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland
  • Gargoyle on St. Colman's Cathedral in Cobh, Ireland
  • Gargoyle on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France
  • Creepy and Curious Home Decor and Furniture

Gargoyles For Kids

Source: "Gargoyle" entry by Lisa A. Reilly, The Dictionary of Art, Vol 12, Jane Turner, ed., Grove, 1996, pp. 149-150