Gothic gargoyles are ancient stone sculptures used as water spouts. Today the grotesque and chimeric figures protect gardens and star in animated series.
Gargoyles, grotesques, chimeras - these are just a few of the terms used to describe what are intricately carved drainage spouts that project from gutters. Gargoyles primary purpose was to take water away from the foundations of buildings. The word “gargoyle” is a derivative from the Latin word, “gurgulio”, and also the old French word, “gargouille”, which had a double meaning, “throat”, and the “gurgling” sound water makes as it passes through a gargoyle.
Gargoyles can be traced as far back as Rome and Greece. Terra cotta water spouts carved to depict lions, eagles, and other types of creatures, including those based on Greek and Roman mythology, were common. Gargoyle water spouts were even found at the ruins of Pompeii. Superstitious citizens believed that they frightened away any evil spirits that might invade a home or a building, while also serving their more practical and functional purpose of a water spout.
Gargoyles became a popular carry-over in Medieval and Gothic architecture. Churches, cathedrals and public buildings commonly included them in their design. Terra cotta was replaced by wood, and by the 13th century, stone, keeping carvers and stonemasons very busy.
Gargoyles crafted during Medieval times became much more 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 overexaggerated muzzles or beaks and other odd appendages. They were positioned on a cornice moulding so they projected forward and away from the building for a number of feet. In this way the gargoyle or grotesque was able to spew water far from the building.
One of the most notable examples of Gothic architecture that incorporated many gargoyles and grotesques is Notre Dame cathedral, in Paris. Once the lead drainpipe was introduced in the 16th century there was no longer any practical need for gargoyles. Architects continued to incorporate them into their building designs, however, but now gargoyles served only a decorative or whimsical purpose.
North America also has their fair share of gargoyles. They protect many of the older buildings in cities like New York and Philadelphia. University campuses are also prime “habitats” for gargoyles. Princeton is a good example. Take a walking tour and look up and make eye contact with these odd-looking stone guardians perched high above and craftily watching any and all passers-by.
Garden gargoyles have become a popular trend over the last few years. Browse at any garden centre or flip through the pages of a garden catalogue and you’ll find many different “species” to choose from. They are either carved from actual stone or made of more economical terra cotta or plaster. Their designs go from the whimsical to the supernatural and grotesque, in keeping with the original and superstitious intent of the gargoyle - that of guarding against evil and malicious spirits. In this case it’s any evil spirits that plan on invading flower beds or herb gardens!
Disney even took advantage of the gargoyle craze by producing an animated weekly series called, that’s right, “Gargoyles”, and enlisting the voice talents of many Hollywood stars, including some of the personalities from Star Trek, the Next Generation. The series did well for a few seasons but has since been relegated to re-runs or cable.
Gargoyles -- fantasmagorical and age-old creatures carved in stone -- their mystique and popularity lives on.