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Gargoyle Statues Are Back In Vogue

Updated on February 21, 2012

A Brief History of Gargoyle Statues

In the real world, gargoyles are primarily associated with the great stone buildings of medieval Europe, particularly cathedrals, like those on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. These grotesquely carved heads of animal or human origin, with or without bodies - originally had a practical use as waterspouts, throwing rainwater clear of the building's walls and foundations to prevent erosion of the mortar in the masonry walls.

The word "gargoyle" appears to have derived from the French word "gargouille," meaning "throat," which also fairly well describes the gurgling sound made by the water as it moves through the downspout.

The term gargoyle has come to be applied, inaccurately, to other sculptures found on the exteriors of medieval buildings that are similar to gargoyles in their grotesque anatomy but do not function as water spouts. These decorative statues, which are the most common gargoyle statues found in modern gardens, are strictly speaking grotesques or chimeras.

Why We Love Gargoyles

Gargoyle statues have the ability to frighten and shock yet entertain us.They appeal both to our imagination and our subconsious. We humans seem to be attracted to the macabre, the monstrous or lurid, especially creatures unknown and strange beings that we hope do not exist!

Medieval artists had an affection for ambiguity and a willingness to freely interpret reality, as well as fantasy, according to religious sybolism. Among the great many gargoyles on medieval buildings, no two are alike - an extraordinary demonstration of the imagination of the sculptors of the Middle Ages. Gargoyles often blend human charactersics with animal forms or mystical beasts. Their very expressions and appearance often reflecting the many aspects of our own personalities.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, living in 12th-century France, made this now famous complaint about the gargoyle carvings he saw around him:

"What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters under the very eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, strange savage lions and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man? 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."

Despite the good saint's objections gargoyle statues have remained popular throughout the centuries. Perhaps our fascination with the grotesque continues unabated because of its appeal to the deep rooted needs of the human race.

Gargoyles embody images from our subconscious - a part of our inner personality given a visual form. The enduring appeal of these creatures may lie in the fact that they can be both repulsive and attractive at the same time.

The monstrous, the novel or even the nasty - things that intend to offend - seem to have an odd allure. Today's affection for the grotesque is especially evident in the popularity of horror films. Is this a reflection of the anxieties of today's society or is it a form of escape from those anxieties? The modern horror film, like the medieval gargoyle, pretends to threaten us but does no harm.

Some people regard gargoyles as ugly with evil connotations but gargoyles are widely believed to be a symbol of protection. Gargoyles statues incorporated into your home or garden design will fend off evil and offer protection for your home and family. Gargoyle statues are believed to come alive at night and many people with large homes and gardens choose winged gargoyles so they can come to life and circle the entire property, fending off evil.

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Choosing Gargoyle Statues For Your Garden

Gargoyle statues and sculptures fit well into any garden design. They are often the little thing which adds a finishing touch to your garden. Gargoyles can be simply set amongst the shrubbery, partly obscured from view, or they can become a more dominant feature when placed on columns or pedestals at various points in the garden such as in grottos, alcoves or at the end of a path or the centre of a pond.

Today an interest in ancient ornamental forms has blossomed as gardeners cultivate a sense of nostalgia and permanence in their garden designs. There is no quicker way to make a young garden feel more established than the inclusion of an old statue. Strategically placed gargoyle statues can add an element of surprise to all gardens, both new and older, more established gardens. Gargoyles can both shock and amuse or entertain your visitors whilst engaging a sense of history - a link to a distant era where these medieval creatures were thought to protect and ward off evil.

Thoughfully placed gargoyle statues can transform our experience of the garden in the following ways:

Focus and Space: A gargoyle statue can bring focus to an area of the garden by directing the eye of the onlooker just where the gardener wants it to go - much as a magician draws the glance of an audience by the gesture of the hand. Gargoyles come in all sizes from life-size traditional Gothic sculptures to smaller, more whimsical designs. Depending on their size and position gargoyle ornaments can expand or shrink the perceived size of the garden space, they can shape the path one takes or influence where one pauses.

Time: Certain styles of gargoyles, particularly replicas from medieval times can link a garden to the past and take it's visitors on a journey to distant lands - to Italy or France - whereas more modern interpretations of gargoyles might anchor a garden in the present or nudge it towards the future.

Mood: Like sunlight or the sound of tricking water, gagrgoyle statues work in tandem with the garden itself to alter the mood of all who enter: to provoke thought, stimulate fantasy or promote laughter. With the introduction of lightweight materials (which still retain an authentic look) you can easily move modern day gargoyle statues around when inspiration strikes, to change the mood of the garden at will.

Framing: Statues can enhance nature's beauty and strength, encouraging the garden's vistor to see what might otherwise have been missed. A thicket of ferns may be a mere greenery until a gargoyle appears secreted in it's midst. It is the gargoyle's ability to please our senses and awaken our emotions that gives it the power to transform an area of your garden that might have previously been overlooked.

Gargoyles, even the more lurid and monstrous, should welcome us into a garden and make us feel at home.

Choosing A Gargoyle Garden Statue

When you are choosing a gargoyle for your garden keep these tips in mind:

  • Choose an item that is finely crafted and pleasing to the eye. many modern day replicas still retain the original features and intricate detail of their medieval ancestors.
  • Decide where you want to place your gargoyle. Hidden among the bushes or high on a pedestal. Some gargoyle statues come seated on a plinth so they look down on us just like their medieval ancestors did.
  • Buy the best quality you can afford. One large, well placed gargoyle can often create more atmosphere in the garden than four or five smaller pieces if you are looking to make an impact. Having said that, making ourselves at home in the garden may include nothing more than placing four or five smaller statues among the plants we treasure. It is up to you.
  • Most importantly buy what you love. No matter how authentic or esteemed by others a gargoyle statue might be, it will bring you little pleasure if it isn't the one that appeals to you personally. The gargoyle statue you choose must appeal to your senses. It might provide you with a sense of security, through it's ongoing protection from evil, or elicit laughter with it's comical features. Whatever you chose it must mean something to you

For more gargoyle statue designs and inspiration for your garden visit my blog

The Legend of La Gargouille

One colorful legend about the origin of the gargoyles' name states that in the 6th century, a dragon named 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. It had several bad habits including swallowing ships, causing destruction with it's fiery breath and spouting so much water that it caused flooding.

The residents of nearby Rouen tried to appease 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 around the year 600) Archbishop Romanus arrived in Rouen and promised to deal with the dragon if the townspeople agreed to be baptised and build a church. Armed with the annual convict and the items needed for an exorcism (bell, candle, book and cross), Romanus 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. He then consigned La Gargouille to be burned at the stake, but the dragon's head and neck were too toughened by it's fiery breath and would not burn. These remnants were mounted upon the town wall as a commemoration of the dragon's defeat and became the model for gargoyles for centuries to come.

The Symbolism of Gargoyles

To understand the meaning of medieval sculptures, such as gargoyles, you must first comprehend the medieval man's powerful belief in God. The cathedral was the manifestation of their faith. Every person in the community contributed something to the church. Even those with no gold to give could harness themselves to the large carts which dragged stones from the quarry to the building site. The cathedral was built to be the most magnificent structure on earth, and no task was considered too arduous for the glory of God.

It is believed that the first purpose of these grotesque creatures that adorned the medieval cathedrals was to teach. The cathedral was to be a "sermon in stone" which could be "read" by an illiterate population. Some gargoyles clearly fill this instructional purpose by illustrating Bible stories from Eve's first reach for the apple to frightening images of eternal damnation. Their express purpose was to frighten, to startle man amid his everyday life. These fantastic creatures were destined to be clear and constant reminder that the devil and original sin exist. Alongside the beauty and splendor of the magnificent cathedral, the serpent lurks.

The motives chosen to be depicted as gargoyles (and grotesques) were manifold and had several origins. Some of them were biblical themes, some of them had a pagan origin while others came from Greek, Egyptian and oriental mythology.

Some gargoyles are believed to represent demons or the devil himself, always watching from above, with their repulsive physical abnormalities. That such ugliness could have a legitimate place on the medieval church, otherwise embellished with beautiful art, was explained by the notion that the devil is actually on God's side, doing God's work by punishing the wicked.

Most gargoyles are grotesque, but stone carvers also honored relatives and friends by carving their faces into them. As they evolved, they morphed into often very elaborate statuary. They became symbols of sorts, using a variety of themes, mostly related to Paganism

For example gargoyle statues sometimes contained faces with multiple smaller figures and one large figure, or one figure with mouth agape and a protruding tongue: This might symbolise the insignificance of the individual and how vulnerable we are to larger powers. Facial and physical deformities were also seen as an act of the devil.

Detached heads are often seen among gargoyle statues. This was a real practice of the Celts, who were head hunters. They worshiped the heads they severed and believed these heads held supernatural powers.

A branch coming out of the mouth or surrounding the head was a sign of divinity to the Celts. The Druids often depicted oak leaves, as the oak was sacred to them. The Green Man, also called Jack-of-the-Green or leaf man, represented most certainly the tree spirit, the old forest god of the oak, for with the Green Man oak leaves are often depicted. It was, in pre-Christian times, a symbol of fertility and rebirth, representing irrepressible life, with the forces of nature merging with humanity.

Gargoyles combining several animals are also called chimeras. In Greek mythology a chimera is an imaginary creature that breathes fire, has a lion's head, a goat's body and a snakes tail but the term is often used to name animal-animal mixtures. When depicted in medieval times, they are generally viewed as sexual warnings, and warnings about the deception in physical appearances that comes with under estimating the devil.

However, not all gargoyles were for religious instruction. Many believe that these frightening figures could scare away evil spirits, and they were put on the outside of buildings to do just that. Gargoyles could ward off evil spirits and protect the valuables within the church. The idea was that the demons were either frightened away or assumed that other evil creatures were already there and would avoid attacking the building. It was believed that gargoyles would come alive at night and fly around the villages and towns protecting the town buildings and people while they were sleeping.

Not all gargoyles appear as frightening either. So what is the smbolism of the comical, the lighthearted and amusing gargoyles we find among the frightening and the monstrous statues? The laughing winged creatures, the smiling human faces that pop out to surprise, and the mouth pulling imp that looks down on the passersby? It appears that not all gargoyles were intended to frighten, reprimand or threaten.

Some gargoyles appear to have been intended to serve a purpose not sacred but more profane. Rather than inspiring dread, perhaps they were designed to amuse, a popular form of entertainment long before the monsters created by Steven Speilberg and the animated Pixar classic Monsters Inc.

A significant number of gargoyles, even though they leer or sneer, have something quite appealing about them. A winged dog-like gargoyle crouching on what is now the National Bank of Belgium in Leuven appears to be having a hearty laugh at all the town's activities. In another cloister, on the Oviedo Cathedral in Spain, a gargoyle depicted only be a head seems to come to life, smiling as it pops out at the unsuspecting visitor. These lively creatures with their expressive faces and animated poses convey a remarkable sense of energy and fun.

So what makes gargoyles so fascinating that they are still carved today? Even though they no longer serve an architectural function gargoyles are still a popular feature of many modern buildings, homes and gardens.

In part it is due to the imagination and freedom unleashed by a subject with so few limitations. Their immediacy and their animation makes gargoyles look like they are ready to use their stone wings and take flight as soon as darkness falls. We humans also have an attraction to the macabre, we are lured by the lurid, the monstrous and unknown creatures that we hope do not exist! This is evident in the popularity of horror movies and science fiction stories today. Sculptures of gargoyles are like the inhabitants of our nightmares, the imagined horrors that one assumes will vanish when we wake, the images carved in stone.

The modern horror movie, like the ancient gargoyle, pretends to threaten us but causes us no harm.


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    • Theophanes profile image

      Theophanes Avery 

      5 years ago from New England

      Neat, I didn't know we knew so much about gargoyles. I thought they were just a mystery. I think they're adorable - and I admit to turning into a fawning fan girl when I saw my first real gargoyles on a trip to Europe. How can I not? :)

      Thank you for an interesting read! Voted up!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great article :)


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