Field Guide to Gargoyles

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.

Welcome to the Field Guide to Gargoyles! 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

Read the rest of the Field Guide to Gargoyles here!

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.

17 thoughts on “Field Guide to Gargoyles, Part One: What is a Gargoyle, Anyway?

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I don’t know if you found the rest of the Field Guide to Gargoyles, but I just updated this post with the link to the others. It’s near the bottom of this post below the last photo. Thanks for stopping by.

  1. Now that I know a gargoyle is a very fan drain spout, I’m trying to figure out how to put them on the house. We could have the only 1974 raised ranch with gargoyles on the corners.

  2. I’m doing a research paper on grotesques and gargoyles for my art history course, and so far I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts about them, but I need some sources to cite. Besides the linked images, would you recommend any books or articles I could read? I’ve already looked into Form In Gothic, but any help would be appreciated since you seem to be very well versed in this topic. Thanks in advance, and I do enjoy your posts!

    1. Hi Grace! Thanks so much for stopping by! I’m always happy to hear from people who are studying art history.

      It can be difficult to find sources about gargoyles, because not a lot of scholars deal with them. My go-to author is Janetta Rebold Benton. She’s one of the few who has written quite a lot about them. Her main book on the subject is called Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings, but she also has several other related works. You can see a list of all her published work here: http://www.janettareboldbenton.com/

      Another author you will want to look at is Michael Camille. His book Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art is classic in medieval studies. I can’t remember how specifically it deals with gargoyles, but it definitely covers a lot of related ideas about grotesques and how they might be interpreted, so it’s definitely worth a look. Camille also wrote The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity. I haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy thus far, but I have no doubt it will be useful to you.

      I hope this helps. Good luck with your paper!

      Alexandra

      P.S. If you find any interesting sources I have overlooked, please let me know. 🙂

  3. Thank you so much! After looking into the books you mentioned, I did manage to find a digital copy of the second Camille book you mentioned, and if you’re at all interested in it I’d be happy to share where I found it. I also came across a manuscript translated into Modern Engilsh called The stone missal: A grimoire on the magick of the gargoyles, which is more focused on the occult and summoning rituals for gargoyles, which I don’t personally subscribe to but do find to be very interesting.
    Thank you again for the help!
    Grace

    1. Grace:

      I’m so glad I was able to help! I would love to know where you found the Camille book. Thanks so much!

      And I wouldn’t put much stock in the occult book either. It was probably written very recently and made to seem like it’s old. People weren’t actually trying to summon gargoyles or anything like that in the Middle Ages. (But I guess some people do today, which I do find interesting.)

      Best of luck on your project, and please stop by again soon.

      Alexandra

      1. Here’s the link to the Camille book: https://b-ok.cc/book/842915/1c0d0b
        I checked my university’s library, and as soon as I send this I’m on my way to check out several of the books you recommended. I’m very glad to have found your site, it’s been very helpful! Enjoy the ebook!
        Grace

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