When we are in a city, look upward and observe the skyline. If we are lucky, we just might spot an elusive figure…the gargoyle. In Europe gargoyles are everywhere, but American gargoyles are an uncommon sight. Recently I was at Chicago’s Millennium Park and I gazed skyward at the towers surrounding the park, and I was pleased to spot a gargoyle high above (pictured left).
This gargoyle pictured hovers above the corner of Michigan and Monroe Avenue in downtown Chicago. The building is the University Club of Chicago, a private social club. It was built in 1908 by architect Martin Roche as an early gothic style skyscraper. Since gargoyles are fixtures of gothic cathedrals, it is fitting that a gothic tower would include this ornamentation.
The purpose of gargoyles and grotesques on cathedrals is not known for certain. Some speculate they were crafted to represent the world of demons and spirits trapped outside the House of God. If a cathedral symbolizes heaven, then outside heaven was the outer darkness where lost souls were cast.
Another meaning was that gargoyles (carved by workers) represented the common man who held little power in the medieval world, where political power was concentrated inside the Church. Within were the icons and imagery of authority. Cathedrals were symbols of the Church’s power, and the powerless could only watch from the outside. And carve subversive images.
Gargoyles are hard to spot if one is not looking for them; they are nearly invisible. They are tiny shapes on a tall structure high above, their details hard to discern. Why bother putting these figures on towers if nobody can really see them clearly? There is also symbolism in this, if they symbolize the spirit world. These faces looking down on humanity from high above are like the spirits…nearly invisible, rarely glimpsed and easily overlooked. Spirits exist out of sight and out of mind, unless one carefully looks for them.
With modern architecture ornamentation is gone. Instead we have faceless skyscrapers of glass, concrete and steel, which have a symbolism of their own. They say we live in a deterministic, materialistic universe and humanity are small, insignificant dots in comparison to these massive structures. Their message is we serve the great powers of commerce. In modern architecture humanity has taken the place of the gargoyle. Walking beneath these towers, if glimpsed from a window high above, people are now indistinct, nearly invisible, easily overlooked. The skyscrapers are our modern cathedrals and we below are now the gargoyles.