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Gargoyles: Statues of Superstition

Text by: Novan Komintas

A good mystery starts with a great question and has no accompanying answers. There are many such mysteries in life, from the infinite secrets of the cosmos to the subatomic activities of matter unseen. Yet the most interesting mysteries, I believe, are those man made. Isn't it peculiar whenever one forgets the reason they did something, or even whether there was a reason in the first place? At such times, it seems silly to us that an action was taken for mysterious reasons. The human mind is arguably the greatest mystery of them all.

But such a topic is far too broad for one article to explore. Instead, I will choose one example of a man made objects that beg many questions and leave very few answers: Gargoyles. Appropriate pieces of architecture for the upcoming month of haunting, gargoyles exemplify the grotesque art the mind is capable of. You can see them in their many, many forms throughout the world. Indeed, gargoyles are a surprisingly common decoration in many world cultures and are indelibly tied to the regional culture of many civilizations throughout history. Whether carved from wood, stone, or steel, gargoyles create a profound sensation in the viewer, sometimes of awe, sometimes of fear, sometimes of oddity. The mystery surrounding these constructs arises then from a question without an answer. Modern writings and research have certainly provided many answers for our picturesque friends; answers to who made them, when they were made, where they can be found, and what purposes they served. Such questions are descriptive in nature, and lead to equally descriptive answers about their background. When it comes to answering "why" questions concerning gargoyles, however, many are left pondering. "Form fits function," many people say; yet the use of gargoyles begs the question of why the haunting and imposing image is tied into the architectural designs. Perhaps we may solve this mystery through stories and mythos…

I think it best to clear up some of those descriptive questions before delving into the unknown of these mysterious figures. Gargoyles are architectural fixtures with the original purpose of diverting rainwater away from buildings. They are essentially eerie water spouts or gutter pipes. Water diversion was a technical marvel for older civilizations. The ancient Egyptians are recorded to have utilized lion heads as the end of their early pipe system. The ancient Greeks made huge advancements in irrigation from which flowed numerous other gargoyle forms, typically animals or men. But it is the medieval variety of gargoyle that is most notable. The name itself stems from the French words gargouille (throat) and gargariser (to gargle), both of which are fitting for the purpose of the figures. Gargoyles were used extensively in medieval architecture. They could be found on castle ramparts, church buttresses, or even as basic roof ornaments. Still the gargoyle fulfilled its aquatic defense role, keeping rain from eroding stone or washing away wall varnish.

So what would justify placing a huge array of forms and figures, of all ranges of glory and horror, upon a useful water disposal apparatus? There are many answers to this question, as there are many different gargoyles out there. The most common across cultures is to have the gargoyle embody a spirit of the culture, for varying purposes and messages. Lion-based gargoyles symbolized that the institution was for the kingly and mighty. Eagles could represent the all seeing nature of the statute upon the populace, handy for any ruler. And monsters such as chimeras, gorgons, and dragons were always excellent for instilling fear, which is an ever useful tool for manipulation. There were also the more stalwart looking ones of soldiers, great warriors, and noble creatures symbolizing that the buildings were protected from all who would act against them. Gargoyles are defined by the superstition of a culture's mythology. For without the idea of vigilant spirits, whether they are noble or malevolent, there would be no need for these stunning depictions upon places of power. And when a culture runs out its clock, and its old stories are lost to time and tomes, so too can the spirits of the gargoyles vanish. Any modern tourist can look at an ever gazing gargoyle in France, Japan, India, England, Greece, and Egypt and miss the same sense of awe that the statutes exuded in years past. For without the old stories, the symbolism dries out and all that's left is the crudely formed rock. The mystery dies not from a fulfilled answer, but a missing question.

For my last point then, I will address the paradoxical idea of Catholic Church gargoyles, arguably the most defined image and reference in modern times. Anyone who has ever visited an old, gothic style cathedral has surely seen some form of the church gargoyle. Common features include goat like horns, baglike wings, and purely demonic face that has scared many a little child I'm sure. Their placements varied, sometimes staring from high atop the bell towers upon the whole village, sometimes from just outside the main door, casting their heavy gaze upon the humble parishioners. They would even continue their watch from within the church walls, high above the pews or hidden in the dark corners of the church. Watching, watching, ever watching. For the especially superstitious and fearing, gargoyles might even be observing, perhaps even shifting… So what on earth are such evil looking beings doing in a supposed bastion of good? The answers vary. Some reason that these devils stare outwards from the church because they could never stare directly at the holiness of the establishment. Or they could be staring at the villagers, reminding them that the devil is always watching. Those lucky gargoyles invited indoors continued casting their vigilance upon parishioners, ready to punish the unfaithful by swooping them away even in a place of sanctity. All of this is especially odd, because gargoyles could fall under idolatry. In another light, perhaps these gargoyles are not meant to be scary, but merely to caricature several vices and sins so as to build strength against evil by mocking it. These church gargoyles also hold heritage from pagan worshippers like the old Egyptians and Greeks. Perhaps the Church is showing the roots of its creation based on old architectural habits? Questions surrounding the church gargoyle abound. Contradictions form the plaster gluing them to the cathedrals of old.

Why are they there? One French abbot, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, asked something similar eight centuries ago:

What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent's head, there a fish with a quadruped's head, then again an animal half horse, half goat... Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.

It is an understandable question about extravagance in the Church. I share his questions of the true nature of the gargoyle, as I am sure many people in the past have and many people in the future will.