The Real Story of the Gargoyle

Inventive and Functional Building Details

An elongated, open-mouthed, winged stone-carved gargoyle attached to the side of stone wall
A Gargoyle on Westminster Abbey's Chapter House in London, England. Photo by Dan Kitwood/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.

The word gargoyle is from the Greek gargarizein meaning to "wash the throat." The 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 spelled as 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 function of a gargoyle is to spit out excess water, but why it looks the way it does is another story. Legend has it that a dragon-like creature named La Gargouille terrorized the people of Rouen, France. In the seventh century A.D. A local cleric named Romanus used Christian symbolism to neutralize La Gargouille's threat to the townspeople—it's said that Romanus destroyed the beast with the sign of the cross. Many early Christians were led to their religion by the fear of the gargoyle, a symbol of Satan. The Christian church became a protective haven for the mostly illiterate people.

Romanus knew the legends that the townspeople of Rouen did not know. The oldest gargoyles have been found in present-day Egypt from the Fifth Dynasty, c.

2400 B.C. 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.

Medieval and Modern Gargoyles

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 12th century Cathédrale Saint-Lazare d'Autun. The mythical Greek chimera became a popular figure stonemasons used as gargoyles.

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. Gargoyles can also be found on American Gothic Revival buildings such as the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

In the 20th century, Art Deco style gargoyles can be seen atop the 1930 Chrysler Building, a well-known skyscraper in New York City. These more modern gargoyles are made of metal and look like heads of American eagles—protrusions that have been called "hood ornaments" by some enthusiasts.

By the 20th century, "gargoyle" functionality as waterspouts had evaporated even if the tradition lived on.

Disney Gargoyles Cartoon

Between 1994 and 1997, Walt Disney Television Animation produced a well-received cartoon called Gargoyles. The main character, Goliath, says things like "It is the gargoyle way," but don't let him fool you. Real gargoyles don't come alive after dark.

In 2004, ten years after the first episode aired, DVDs of the animations were released by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. To a certain generation, this series is a remembrance of things past.

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 rainwater from the roof.

Care and Maintenance of Gargoyles and Grotesques

Because gargoyles are by definition on the exterior of buildings, they are subject to natural elements—especially water. As slender, sculpted protursions, their deterioration is imminent. Most of the gargoyles we see today are reproductions. In fact, in 2012 the Duomo in Milan, Italy created an Adopt a Gargoyle campaign to help pay for upkeep and restoration—which makes a lovely gift for the person who has everything.

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