Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings

Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings

by Janetta Rebold Benton


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Multitudes of gargoyles haunt the medieval buildings of western Europe, peering down from churches and cathedrals, houses and town halls. Holy Terrors offers a fresh and irresistible history of these wildly varied characters — a society of stone creatures perched high above the workaday world.

The true gargoyle is a waterspout, an architectural necessity that medieval artisans transformed into functional fantasies. The informative introduction to Holy Terrors explains everything that is known or conjectured about the history, the construction, the purposes, and the mysterious meanings of these often rude and rowdy characters. The three chapters that follow are devoted to the gargoyles themselves, imaginatively carved of stone in the form of people, real animals, and fantastic beasts. In clear, lively language, Janetta Rebold Benton puts these personality-filled sculptures into the context of medieval life and art and captures their quirky diversity in her engaging color photographs.

Concluding the book is an invaluable guide to gargoyle sites throughout western Europe, as well as suggestions for further reading. This is the first book for adults to provide an intelligent and entertaining overview of medieval gargoyles, and it is bound to increase the already abundant legions of gargoyle admirers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780789201829
Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/1997
Pages: 140
Product dimensions: 8.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)
Lexile: 1320L (what's this?)

About the Author

Janetta Rebold Benton is a professor of art history at Pace University, Pleasantville, New York, and a lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. A specialist in medieval art, Professor Benton has published several books and articles on medieval and Renaissance topics and has lectured in the United States and Europe. She has been studying and photographing gargoyles for over a decade.

Read an Excerpt


Look up! Look out! A multitude of gargoyles haunt the medieval buildings of western Europe, peering down from churches and cathedrals, houses and town halls. Clinging to edges and ledges, these projections—carved of stone in the form of people, real animals, or fantastic beasts—mark rooflines, corners, and buttresses, enhancing the picturesque quality of a building’s silhouette. When the sky is clear, gargoyles may merely glower from the towers—but do not stand below them on rainy days.

Gargoyles are elaborate waterspouts. Usually taking the form of an elongated fantastic animal, these decorated gutters are architectural necessities turned into ornament. To prevent rainwater from running down the masonry walls and eroding the mortar, water is carried a gargoyle’s length away from the building and thrown clear of the wall. As can be seen by looking down at a gargoyle on the New Church in Delft, the Netherlands (plate 3), rainwater is removed from the roof via a trough cut in the back of the creature. The water usually exits through the open mouth, as demonstrated by a gargoyle in a courtyard of the Hotel of the Catholic Kings in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (plate 1). A sudden rainstorm in southern France provided an opportunity to photograph a functioning lion gargoyle as rainwater issued from its mouth on the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul in Troyes (plate 2). Rows of gargoyles—like those on the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris (plate 6), positioned along the peripheries of buildings and extending out beyond their walls, and like those that surround a tower on the Town Hall of Bruges, Belgium (plate 4)—make clear their practical role as part of the drainage system. Water falling from gargoyles on the clerestory level of a church might, however, land on the aisle roofs. When Gothic flying buttresses were used, aqueducts could be cut into the buttresses to divert the water over the aisle walls, as seen at Burgos Cathedral in Spain (plate 5).

Western European languages have many words to describe these architectural appendages. In Italian, gronda sporgente, an architecturally precise phrase, means “protruding gutter.” The German Wasserspeier describes what the gargoyle appears to do; he is a “water spitter.” The Dutch waterspuwer—”water spitter” or “water vomiter”—is similar. Different are the Spanish gargola and the French gargouille, which come from the Latin gargula, meaning “gullet” or “throat.” Gargouille, connected also with the French verb gargariser—which means “to gargle”—is surely the most evocative of these terms and is the source of the English word gargoyle. (A building may be described as gargoyled, which is to say, equipped with gargoyles.)

The term gargoyle has come to be applied, inaccurately, to other sculptures on the exteriors of medieval buildings that are similar to gargoyles in their grotesque anatomy but do not function as waterspouts. Strictly speaking, these are grotesques or chimeras. In the Middle Ages the term babewyns, derived from the Italian babunio (baboon), was used to refer not only to gargoyles but to any sort of grotesquerie. Today, given the toll taken by centuries of building alterations, modifications, weather, and pollution, it may be difficulty to tell if water ever issued from certain medieval mouths.

The concept of a decorative projection through which water flows away from a building was known in antiquity. The architectural function of the gargoyle may originally have been served by wood or ceramic waterspouts; with the introduction of stone, the possibility of carving these protrusions into ornamental forms became more inviting. The ancient Egyptians used animal-shaped stone waterspouts, as did the Greeks, who especially favored the lion head. The Etruscans, too, used animal-shaped waterspouts. Lion-headed gargoyles and anthropomorphic waterspouts were frequent on homes in the Roman city of Pompeii, preserved by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

In the early Middle Ages, rainwater usually ran down the roofs and poured from the cornices directly onto the public streets. True gargoyles are thought to date from the beginning of the twelfth century. In the Gothic era, especially during the thirteenth century and thereafter, gargoyles became the preferred method of drainage. (Not all medieval waterspouts were carved as gargoyles, however. Even during the centuries when gargoyles were extremely popular, simple troughs might be used, particularly in areas of a building not exposed to view.)

An explanation, more charming than credible, for the gargoyle’s name, ability to spout water, and physical form is found in the following tale. A dragon called La Gargouille—described as having a long, reptilian neck, a slender snout and jaws, heavy brows, and membranous wings—lived in a cave close to the River Seine in France. It had several bad habits: swallowing ships, causing destruction with its fiery breath, and spouting so much water that it caused flooding. The residents of nearby Rouen attempted to placate La Gargouille with an annual offering of a live victim; although the dragon preferred maidens, it was usually given a criminal to consume.

In the year 520, or perhaps around 600, the priest Romanus (or Romain) arrived in Rouen and promised to deal with the dragon if the townspeople agreed to be baptized and to build a church. Equipped with the annual convict and the items needed for an exorcism (bell, book, candle, and cross), Romans subdued the dragon by making the sign of the cross and led the now docile beast back to town on a leash made from his priest’s robe. When La Gargouille was burned at the stake, the head and neck, well tempered by the heat of the dragon’s fiery breath, would not burn. These remnants were mounted on the town wall and became the model for gargoyles for centuries to come.

Although gargoyles can rarely be dated with certainty, they appear to have evolved in physical form over the years. Believed to be among the earliest Gothic examples are the gargoyles at Laon Cathedral in France, of c. 1220, which are large in size but stubby in shape, little more than bust-length creatures, and few in number. Soon after, full-length gargoyles appeared on Notre-Dame in Paris, although still fairly short in their proportions. Those placed at the ends of the canals of the flying buttresses on the nave of Notre-Dame were already longer in shape (plate 6). Once the entire animal was depicted, it was likely to be posed as if holding onto the building by its claws, establishing a logical and clever relationship between the animal and the architecture—a witty use of context that treats the animals as if real. These animals seem to stretch their bodies, and especially necks, as if trying to throw their water as far as possible from the building. Because architects quickly recognized that dividing the flow of water minimized the potential damage from each little trickle, gargoyles became widespread and were employed systematically before mid-century.

Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION: Some Facts and Some Conjectures about Gargoyles 6




Notes 126
Gargoyle Sites to Visit 130
Acknowledgements 133
Selected Bibliography 134
Index 136

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