By Earl Hunsinger
Art comes in many forms and is created for many uses. One of the strangest examples is the gargoyle. The late 20th century saw a resurgence of interest in all things Gothic, with a contemporary Goth subculture developing in many countries. This has resulted in the word gargoyle being used as a slang term and in Internet fantasy literature. However, when most people hear the word gargoyle, they think of something quite a bit older, the ugly stone creatures that look down from the tops of old churches.
The word gargoyle comes from the Old French "gargouille" and the Late Latin "gurgulio." The word gargle comes from the same words, which mean both throat and the sound made by gargling. Originally a gargoyle was simply an architectural feature used to direct water away from a building, whether the gargoyle was decorated or not. The Greeks and Romans often used wood or terra cotta for such waterspouts, but a complete shift to stone seems to have occurred by the 13th century. Since the stone had to be shaped in order to function as a waterspout, the next logical step was carving it into a decorative feature for the building. This is what we normally think of as gargoyles, decorative statues carved from stone and made to look like grotesque and fantastic creatures. Technically, many of the frightening statues thought of a gargoyles today are more properly referred to as grotesques, since they don't function as rainspouts but are merely decorative. While gargoyles were included in the construction of many medieval buildings, they seem to be most prevalent on churches.
Perhaps like many you've asked - why? Why would someone put something so hideous, so frightening, and often so evil-looking on a religious building?
The French art historian Émile Mâle, who made a study of the Gothic art of France, regarded gargoyles as meaningless decorations without any particular significance. Others have expressed different theories.
Some scholars feel that they are just pagan holdovers. Like gargoyles, many of the gods worshiped by pagan people in past centuries were represented as half human and half animal. Since the church was interested in converting as many people as possible, it used anything that made them feel more comfortable. Because of this, many of the beliefs, customs, and symbols used in the religions of Christendom today can trace their origins directly to pagan religions. These were adopted to make the conversion of the pagans easier. Could gargoyles have had a similar purpose?
Most of the people attending church in the Middle Ages were illiterate and accustomed to the use of visual symbols in their worship, especially if they were newly converted pagans. Because of this, some feel that gargoyles were used as visual reminders of the dangers of evil and warnings that parishioners needed to mend their ways.
Others feel that gargoyles were used in a superstitious way, to ward off evil. The reasoning behind this theory is that either the gargoyles were meant to scare off any evil spirit that came along, or they were meant to show any passing demon that evil spirits were already at work there so it wasn't necessary for the demon to stop.
It has even been expressed that perhaps gargoyles were placed on buildings simply to show the balance or juxtaposition between ugliness and beauty. In this regard it is interesting to note that while most gargoyles depicted frightening, demonic creatures, especially those prior to the 15th century, some merely had exaggerated poses or facial expressions. It seems that the stone carvers progressively acquired more control over their work, since many of these gargoyles depict humorous caricatures of monks or other church officials.
Whatever the true reason for creating such demonic church sentries, gargoyles remain a strange art form from the age of Gothic architecture.