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Discover The True Meaning Of Gargoyles In Gothic Art

Among the victims of the recent fire in Notre-Dame Cathedral were these iconic stone monsters. But how much do you know about the faithful guardians of Gothic churches? Read the true story behind the creation of these creatures.

By Rodrigo Ayala Cárdenas

We can just dare to imagine the views Quasimodo, the character created by Víctor Hugo, had while patrolling the ceiling of Notre-Dame Cathedral! To see the city from above, staring at the Seine, lit up by the fire of the torches, or just breathe in the Parisian breeze must have been the top pleasures for the outcast who inhabited the Cathedral's bell towers. Unfortunately, Quasimodo, one of the symbols of France, was rejected by the Parisian people because of his extreme ugliness and his hunchback.

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Quasimodo's loneliness was assuaged by the extraordinary view of this magnificent city, the bell's songs, and the murmur of the mass happening under his feet and that traveled with the wind. He was also accompanied by a group of beings as strange as he was: gargoyles. These winged, demonic creatures, complete with contorted faces and sharp teeth have been part of Gothic architecture for centuries, specially in churches and cathedrals. When they became more and more common as ornaments for Gothic churches, they were known as "griffins".

In Germany, they are known as Wasserspeier, "water spouter." This word is related to the Dutch word waterspuwer, "water spitter." For practical purposes, gargoyles serve as decoration for the building's drainpipes: they serve an aesthetic purpose. But if we go further back in the past, Greek and Egyptian temples also had similar creatures, and they were used for the same purpose: to drain the rain water from the ceilings. So, perhaps Medieval architects borrowed this idea from these ancient cultures. Gargoyles are used to drain rain water away from the façade and avoid water damage.

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Remember that one of Gothic architecture's main features was high ornaments and walls, which meant water drenched the whole structure, which could potentially cause water damage. That's why the architects began using gargoyles as a solution, to save the integrity of these awe-inspiring cathedrals. Because of the large amount of water involved, these architects could really let their imagination run wild and create these extraordinary stone ornaments.  

However, for the common people, they became features that kept the real demons away, serving as guardians of the churches. Other  stories, however, saw in them a reminder of the torments of hell that await those who stray from the good path. In this world, the gargoyle embodies a menacing guardian with a sinister gaze and smile to cause fear in those who see it. It is somewhat disturbing that these beings are part of the iconography of cathedrals, places of sanctity, worship, and quiet religiosity. But the reason might be found in the Bible itself, which has a few unsettling descriptions of angels and cherubs. 

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«And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.

And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.

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Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.

As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.

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Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.

As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.»

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(Ezekiel 1,6-14 – King James Bible)

The oldest legend about these beings hails from mid 600 AD. A man called Romain, known as San Romanus, first chancellor of King Clothario II, tells about the appearance of a horrible being in the land of Rouen and he calls it Gargouille or Goji. This being is very close to the appearance of what now we know as gargoyles: bat-like or dragon wings, reptilian body, and fangs. San Romanus makes the creature submit to the power of a crucifix and burns the body in the city of Rouen. However, the head of the gargoyle isn't singed by fire and the man then decides to put it on display in the main church of the city.

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