What Is a Gargoyle?
A gargoyle is a quaintly formed head of an animal, man or devil, carved in stone. It was first used by the stonemasons of the Middle Ages as a decorative spout for the rain-water from a roof. The builders of Gothic churches, where gargoyles were chiefly used, allowed their imaginations to take full flight, unconcerned that their little sculptured masterpieces were to be placed so high that earth-bound man could hardly see them.
Perhaps the best example of the use and variety of gargoyles is seen on the top of the Cathedral of Notre Dame which was founded in 1163, and stands on the Île de la Cité, an island on the River Seine, in Paris. Here hundreds of the grotesque and gaping figures reach out from balustrades and towers to spout water clear of the cathedral walls.
Victor Hugo, the French author, wrote about the walls of the cathedral in his historical romance, Notre Dame de Paris, which was later made into the film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Not all churchmen have approved of the gargoyle as a decorative embellishment. A French monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), one of the most illustrious and eloquent preachers of the Middle Ages, condemned them. He said that people might prefer “to spend the whole day in admiring these things piece by piece rather than meditating on the Law Divine”.
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 Ancient Egyptian architecture, gargoyles showed little variation, typically in the form of a lion’s head. Similar lion-mouthed water spouts were also seen on Greek temples, carved or modelled in the marble or terracotta cymatium of the cornice. Excellent examples of this are the 39 remaining lion-headed water spouts on the Temple of Zeus. There were originally 102 gargoyles or spouts, but due to the heavy weight (they were crafted from marble), many snapped off and had to be replaced.
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, or 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 bought drainpipes to carry the water from the gutteringroof to the ground and only very few buildings using gargoyles were constructed. This was because some people found them frightening, and sometimes heavy ones fell off, causing damage. In 1724, the London Building Act passed by the Parliament of Great Britain made the use of downpipes compulsory on all new construction.