A Beginner's Field Guide to Gargyles · Gargoyle of the Day · Gargoyles · Medieval Art and Architecture

A Beginner’s Field Guide to Gargoyles, Part One: What is a Gargoyle, Anyway?


I love gargoyles, and I know a lot of other people do too. Talking to gargoyle enthusiasts, I’ve come to realize that the origins, terminology, and interpretation of gargoyles can be confusing, and there’s not a lot of good information out there. In an effort to encourage greater appreciation of these quirky little creatures, I’ve decided to spend a few posts addressing the questions of many novice gargoyle trackers.

In this first installment, let’s identify the gargoyle and its close cousin, the grotesque.

What exactly is a gargoyle, anyway?

Amiens Cathedral gargoyle
A gargoyle on Amiens Cathedral in France. Photo by Vassil (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Technically speaking, a gargoyle is a fancy drain spout – something that diverts rain water off of a roof and away from a building. More specifically, gargoyles are usually carved or shaped to resemble some sort of being, such as a person, animal, hybrid, or imaginary creature. They are often made of stone. We usually think of gargoyles as medieval, dragon-like inhabitants of churches. While Gothic and Gothic Revival gargoyles are clearly the best known, there are also gargoyles from many other time periods, styles, and cultures. We’ll talk about this more in a later post.

“Gargoyle” is a strange-sounding word. It comes from the Latin word “gurguilio” and the French word “gargouille“, both of which mean “throat”. This is quite fitting, considering that most gargoyles conduct water out of their mouths. There’s also an old French legend of a fearsome dragon named La Gargouille, who became Rouen’s resident gargoyle after being defeated by a saint.

So, what’s a grotesque and how’s it different from a gargoyle?

Bamburgh Castle grotesque
Bamburgh Castle grotesque. Photo by Gary Rogers via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D.
If you read about gargoyles, you’ve probably come across the word “grotesque” quite a bit. Like gargoyles, grotesques are carvings representing a variety of quirky creatures. The main difference is that grotesques aren’t drain spouts and often serve no practical purpose at all. Otherwise, it can be very difficult to tell the two apart, which is why some people mistakenly call both things “gargoyles”. This is probably ok in casual conversation, and I definitely do it from time to time, but some people can get very particular about the terminology. Other enthusiasts don’t pay much attention, but it’s a good idea to choose your words wisely. Grotesques are much more plentiful than gargoyles.

Not just architectural features, grotesques also appear in other art forms, particularly carvings and illuminated manuscripts. Some other words you may hear in conjunction with grotesques are: “marginalia” (decorations around the margins of illuminated manuscripts), “green man” (a little face accompanied by foliage that are carved on buildings), and “chimera” (a mythological beast that’s sometimes another name for a grotesque).  The word grotesque is defined as “departing markedly from the natural, the expected, or the typical”.(*)

Vue de Paris depuis Notre-Dame
When people think of gargoyles, this is usually comes to mind, even though he’s technically a Gothic Revival grotesque. Notre Dame de Paris. Photo by Myrabella (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Still to come, the history and appearance of gargoyles and grotesques. Check back next week!

In the meantime, I want to hear from you! What interests you most about gargoyles and grotesques? What confuses you most about them? Do you agree with what I’ve said so far? If you send me your questions and pictures of your favorite gargoyles, I’ll do my best to feature them in future posts.


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