Why do gargoyles look the way they do? Why are they depicted as fierce creatures, with bat wings and fangs? The answer may lie in the legend of the Gargouille.
A French legend, which sprang up around the town of Rouen in the seventh century AD, describes a fearsome battle between an intrepid local bishop, St. Romanus, and a terrible dragon, known as the Gargouille. A creature with bat-like wings, a long neck, and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth, the Gargouille was said to have descended upon the city of Rouen, and laid waste to the surrounding countryside. The stricken townspeople then turned to their bishop, St. Romanus, to deliver them from this fire-breathing menace.
Singlehandedly — if the legend is to be believed — St. Romanus captured the Gargouille, led it back to Rouen, and burned it. As fire consumed the creature, its wings burned up, and so did its body. However, the Gargouille’s head refused to burn, as it had long been tempered by the heat of its own fiery breath, so St. Romanus mounted the inflammable head high up on the wall of the church, in order to scare off evil spirits, and ensure the protection of the town.
According to architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the earliest known medieval gargoyles appear on Laon Cathedral. Along with other features of cathedral building, the use of gargoyles spread throughout Europe during the medieval period, but among all these examples of European Gothic architecture, from Scotland to the Rhineland, perhaps the most famous gargoyles are the gargoyles of Notre-Dame de Paris. There, as at other Gothic cathedrals, gargoyles perform a talismanic role, warding off evil spirits, and ensuring the protection of the town — like the head of the Gargouille itself — while at the same time they serve a more practical, structural role.
A trough is cut in the back of each gargoyle, and rainwater exits through the gargoyle’s open mouth, so that each gargoyle functions as a spout to convey water off the rooftop, and away from the side of the cathedral. By preventing rainwater from running down masonry walls, and eroding the mortar, gargoyles help minimize potential damage from a rainstorm. This explains why a gargoyle so often takes the form of a boldly elongated creature: the longer the gargoyle, the further it can project water away from the wall.
Gargoyles are sometimes confused with grotesques. A true gargoyle is always capable of functioning as a waterspout, whereas a gargoyle-like architectural feature, or grotesque, is merely ornamental. An illustration of both appears here, on the page of an antique edition of Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre-Dame de Paris:
“Why was I not made of stone like thee?”
― Quasimodo asks a gargoyle, on the ramparts of Notre-Dame, in “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” (1939), based on Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre-Dame de Paris.
It was not until the early twentieth century that gargoyles began to enter the modern imagination as stone vessels of demonic powers, or as re-awakened medieval monsters. In a handful of pulp fiction stories from the 1930s, sinister gargoyles serve as villains; horned, goat-like creatures rampage over the countryside, and attack medieval towns, much as the original Gargouille once did.
The strange, scary, and sometimes silly appearance of a gargoyle can often strike a dramatic contrast to the more serious devotional sculpture found elsewhere throughout a cathedral. In fact, what may account more than anything else for the gargoyle’s odd appearance is a sense of humor, given license to play, as generations of artists allowed their own creative impulses free rein. Since they are so high up, and harder to see than the more important, serious sculptures, each gargoyle was for its creator an opportunity to be a little eccentric, maybe tell a little joke. Sculpting a gargoyle may have been a chance to create a caricature, to poke fun at the Devil, or maybe just take the boss down a peg or two.
Washington, D.C., The Federal City, our Neoclassical capital, may seem an unlikely place to spot a Gothic gargoyle — and yet, Washington National Cathedral is home to no fewer than one hundred hand-carved gargoyles and grotesques.
The cathedral’s longtime master stone carver, Roger Morigi, was a temperamental perfectionist who wasn’t shy about sharing his opinion. One time, following an argument, carver John Guarente vented his frustration with the boss by going to work on a new gargoyle. Like many other gargoyles, Guarente’s gargoyle took a form half-human, half-devil, but Guarente included a couple of details Morigi was bound to recognize: the tools sticking out of the gargoyle’s pants pocket, the tools of a master stone carver. In his left hand, the gargoyle wields a chisel. In his right, a mallet. The “mushroom cloud” overhead could only be a reference to Morigi’s “atomic” temper.
The final appearance of the gargoyle was kept secret from Morigi until it was completed. As the story goes, Morigi took the joke well.