A gargoyle is effectively a waterspout projecting from a roof gutter or upper part of a building to throw water clear of walls or foundations. From frequent rendering of such spouts as decorative figures, the term, derived from the Old French gargouille (Latin gurgulio), meaning throat or gullet, came to designate the figures rather than the spouts. It also was extended to include such figures not used as spouts.
Gargoyles are associated primarily with Gothic architecture. A shift from wood to stone for these figures probably occurred early in the 13th century, and their extension to nonfunctional use developed soon after. As Gothic gargoyles tend to be fanciful and highly expressive in physiognomy, they are frequently called grotesques. Although stylistic and symbolic significance has been attached to gargoyles, their character can be attributed to the prolific imaginative energy that marked the Gothic age.
The subjects cover a wide range and are not always grotesque. Animal themes, both wild and domestic, and weird mixtures of animals, called chimeras, predominate. However, heads or figures of people, ranging from wild men to knights, also occur. The tenor of the subjects is not necessarily evil, but includes devotional types such as monks and pilgrims.
Gargoyle-like figures are to be found in Gothic house decorations and especially in the prolific elaborations on choir stalls. The vigorous, expressive, and spontaneous nature of all such work renders it among the most appealing of Gothic art forms to the modern taste.