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Gargoyle's Are Watching Us

Updated on April 15, 2015

The Gargoyles Are Watching Us.

Gargoyle location to your left: New York Times Building, New York

In architecture, a gargoyle is a carved stone grotesque with a spout designed to convey water from a roof and away from the side of a building.
The term originates from the French gargouille, originally "throat" or "gullet";[1] cf. Latin gurgulio, gula, and similar words derived from the root gar, "to swallow", which represented the gurgling sound of water (e.g., Spanish garganta, "throat"; Spanish gárgola, "gargoyle").

A chimera, or a grotesque figure, is a sculpture that does not work as a waterspout and serves only an ornamental or artistic function. These are also usually called gargoyles in laypersons' terminology, although the field of architecture usually preserves the distinction between gargoyles (functional waterspouts) and non-waterspout grotesques.

The term gargoyle is most often applied to medieval work, but throughout all ages some means of water diversion, when not conveyed in gutters, was adopted. In Egypt, gargoyles ejected the water used in the washing of the sacred vessels which seems to have been done on the flat roofs of the temples. In Greek temples, the water from roofs passed through the mouths of lions whose heads were carved or modeled in the marble or terra cotta cymatium of the cornice.

A local legend that sprang up around the name of St. Romanus ("Romain") (631-641 A.D.), the former chancellor of the Merovingian king Clotaire II who was made bishop of Rouen, relates how he delivered the country around Rouen from a monster called Gargouille, having the creature captured by the only volunteer, a condemned man. The gargoyle's grotesque form was said to scare off evil spirits so they were used for protection. In commemoration of St. Romain the Archbishops of Rouen were granted the right to set a prisoner free on the day that the reliquary of the saint was carried in procession (see details at Rouen).

Many medieval cathedrals included gargoyles and chimeras. The most famous examples are those of Notre Dame de Paris. Although most have grotesque features, the term gargoyle has come to include all types of images. Some gargoyles were depicted as monks, combinations of real animals and people, many of which were humorous. Unusual animal mixtures, or chimeras, did not act as rainspouts and are more properly called grotesques. They serve more as ornamentation, but are now synonymous with gargoyles.

Both ornamented and unornamented water spouts projecting from roofs at parapet level were a common device used to shed rainwater from buildings until the early eighteenth century. From that time, more and more buildings employed downpipes to carry the water from the guttering at roof level to the ground and only very few buildings using gargoyles were constructed. In 1724, the London Building Act passed by the Parliament of Great Britain made the use of downpipes compulsory on all new construction.

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History of Gargoyles

"The history of gargoyles goes back before Christ," said Pommer. "The idea came from when people would chop off an enemy's head and put it in front of their dwellings. It was believed to keep evil spirits away, but it was also a warning, like, 'This is what happened to the last guy that messed with me.'"

In the tour, he points out the differences between two basic types of gargoyles, grotesque and Greek or Romanesque. Grotesque gargoyles combine hideous heads with sleek animal bodies. Pommer's personal favorite, Grotesques, overhang a historic building at 36 Gramercy Park East.

"They look like grotesque heads on beautiful bodies of birds," he said.

Gargoyles of the Romanesque tradition were based on Medusa and other mythical creatures, and were either completely hideous or completely beautiful. In Europe, most gargoyles are functional. "They're glamorized water spouts," said Pommer, adding that none of those seen in New York City are functional. "They're just great ornamentations. Architects can do what they want."

Although many architects have designed historic buildings with ornamental creatures that resemble gargoyles, not all of them are what they seem to be. Unlike some sculptures or reliefs that are fashioned into animals or mythical creatures, authentic gargoyles overhang buildings from high floors.

"So if they did spout water, it would go over the building," explained Pommer.

Some great gargoyles, he said, are those that stand out from the New York Life Insurance Building east of Madison Square Park. That landmarked building is also the first stop of the gargoyle tour. Curiously, the last building on the tour has gargoyles that look a lot like the ones at New York Life.

"I like to think that they came to say good-bye or congratulate us," joked Pommer.

Most buildings with gargoyles in New York were built between 1900 and the 1930s, and while gargoyles can be found in many old churches in Europe, there are none in United States houses of worship.

"We're too puritanical. Some of those gargoyles are female figures pointing to their genitals," he said.

According to Pommer, there are a number of those gargoyles in Europe that are based on a Celtic goddess of birth and fertility. Such gargoyles appeared in churches during medieval times when the Catholic Church was trying to convert as many Pagans as possible.

"To make the Pagans more comfortable and come of their own free will, they incorporated Pagan figures," he explained. "Gargoyles are examples of just that."

Pommer said he personally enjoys gargoyles for "Freudian reasons."

"If you look up and see a hideous one, you may not realize it at the time, but it'll recharge your memory. It'll bring up repressed memories that you had in your self-conscious."

COPYRIGHT 2007 Hagedorn Publication

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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    Post Comment
    • Blonde Blythe profile image

      Blonde Blythe 

      6 years ago from U.S.A.

      Love those gargoyles, and enjoyed this lens! :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Oh gosh, I have always been fascinated by the depth and wit of gargoyles ... glad they are watching us.

    • Ram Ramakrishnan profile image

      Ram Ramakrishnan 

      7 years ago

      Like all beings, with contrasting destinies

      are they endowed: chimeras and gargoyles;

      Some sport a smile and lounge in gardens,

      while others are burdened and perpetually toil.

    • Lee Hansen profile image

      Lee Hansen 

      7 years ago from Vermont

      A baby gargoyle replica watches over my kitchen ...

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 

      9 years ago from La Verne, CA

      Yes I do. They are fascinating. They are creepy but stay in place, so a harm done.

    • blue22d profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      Do you like gargoyles? Please stop by and tell me of your favorites.


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