Gargoyles in Gothic Architecture

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Gargoyles are frightening creatures added to the façade of many buildings, mainly cathedrals. Not merely decorative, gargoyles serve a practical as well as spiritual purpose. Gargoyles are mostly associated with Gothic architecture.

Early Gargoyles

Gargoyles are one element that horror movies use to make their movies extra frightening. Even some animated movies use them to emphasize that the villain lives where the gargoyles are. Despite all of that, though, gargoyles actually serve a very practical purpose.

The earliest forms of gargoyles were around even before the Gothic period, as early as ancient Egypt. The Gothic period gargoyles were mainly in Europe, but other examples have been found in Greece and even in China. Now that we know a little history, let's find out why gargoyles were so prominent in Gothic architecture.

The Need for a Gargoyle

The Gothic period in architecture lasted from the 12th century to the 16th century. Gothic buildings are found all throughout Europe. As buildings and cathedrals became more and more ornate, there rose a need for a way for water to be channeled away from the buildings. They needed something like the rain gutters we use today. But not any old gutter system would work, churches needed gutters and spouts just as ornate as the rest of the church. Therefore, builders started to add gargoyles to cathedral roofs. A gargoyle is a spout that allows water to drain away from buildings.

Gargoyle in Marne, France

Now I know what you are thinking, if a gargoyle is a spout, then what is the purpose of the other carved creatures on cathedral walls? Are those gargoyles, too? No, these are actually called grotesques. A grotesque is more of a support form, like a corbel. Both are very prominent in Gothic architecture.

Grotesque Head

Practical yet Frightful

So, we've established that gargoyles serve a very practical purpose. They are highly ornate water spouts that drain the water from rooftops away from the walls of the building and off of the roofs. Draining the water away helps prevent water damage. The word gargoyle comes from the old French word gargouille, meaning throat. Plus, they made a gurgling noise as they spit out rain water.

Gargoyles and grotesques also serve a spiritual purpose. Most commoners of the Gothic period didn't know how to read and were also quite superstitious. These creatures were unfamiliar, and people thought perhaps they came alive and flew around during the night. A church, in some minds, would serve as a place to protect them from the creatures.

The creatures also served to ward off evil spirits both outside and inside the church. In some instances, grotesques were used inside the cathedral as protectors of holy items.

Gargoyles in Amiens, France

Not everyone agreed that gargoyles should be placed on churches, though. The grotesques and gargoyles were subject to a rant by Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. He disliked the creatures and thought of them as unclean and serving no purpose on the church. According to Clairvaux, they were almost idolatrous.

But that didn't stop builders from using them, and as the Gothic period went on, they became a staple. Let's check out a few famous cathedrals known for their gargoyles.

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