I like gargoyles; they are cool. They make me wish I lived in Europe so I could check them out. Their great gothic cathedrals have so many of them. There are not many places in the U.S. where I can see monstrous beings carved in stone. I took the picture of the griffin above at the Yerkes Observatory. However, nothing is better then the real thing…a medieval cathedral gargoyle.
The term gargoyle refers to an actual waterspout, while the term grotesque refers to a gargoyle-like ornamentation without the waterspout functionality. Apparently, the reason for these carvings, their purpose and origin remain unknown. Why were these hideous and humorous waterspouts put on cathedrals of all places…God’s house of worship? Nobody knows for certain. Gargoyles are a mystery.
The gothic cathedrals of the middle ages were filled with symbolism. Since most people were mostly illiterate in medieval times, the cathedrals were like giant picture stories incorporated into stone and stained glass. The stained glass, the statuary, the iconography all conveyed clear messages. Inside the cathedral was an experience, as if one had entered heaven itself with God and his Saints and Angels watching over us.
What about gargoyles? If the cathedrals were filled with symbolism, what is the iconography of the gargoyle? They hover outside the cathedral, high above looking down on the churchgoers as they enter the church. There must be a purpose to them. I think the important clue is that they exist only outside the church, not within.
It has been suggested that the purpose of gargoyles were to scare away evil spirits. In other cultures, wearing scary masks while dancing and beating drums or the use of fireworks were used to scare away the evil spirits. Frightening ceremonial spirit masks and gargoyles look similar enough. Sort of like fighting fire with fire. Would a genuine evil spirit be afraid of a stone grotesque? I suppose people used to think spirits were dumb enough to be fooled.
Gargoyles seem to represent evil spirits. If you look at the woodcuts from the period that depicts the demon, they have a unique appearance that seems to match that of the gargoyle. Gargoyles cover the outside of the cathedral, but they don’t exist inside since symbolically evil spirits cannot enter the Holy. To the eyes of the medieval churchgoer, the cathedral might seem like the boundary between heaven and hell. Inside the Church were images of the saints and angels, outside waiting were gargoyles hanging from their perches. Inside the church’s structure heaven was symbolized, while outside the church the gargoyle symbolized the “outer darkness”, the realm where the lost souls and the damned dwell forever parted.
Here is a little scarier thought. Perhaps the gargoyles were not only symbolic. Could the visionaries and mystics of the time have seen something more, which we can’t see? Perhaps those blessed with special insight were able to actually view evil spirits hovering outside a church. Invisible entities might have prowled the parameter of places of worship…watching the worshipers for purposes of their own. Do spirits lay siege to places where people congregate for worship? The symbolism of the barrier between the clean and unclean spirits might not have been only symbolic.
Then again, gargoyles strike me as being the humblest of creatures. Ugly, taken for granted, doing the dirty work of being waterspouts. No carved saint or stone angel would dare be caught being a lowly waterspout. Sort of like all the invisible people in real life, who toil with our mudane work for little pay or glory. Like the laborers who toiled to build the cathedral for a wealthy Church. Yet, these people are no less worthy then any other human being, bishop or royalty included. Could that be the lesson of the gargoyle? Were they an act of rebelliousness by the stone carvers? That the humble gargoyle (like most of us) enjoys the same place in the Divine as all the fancy saints and angels? Except we have to sit outside in the rain.