Fun Facts · Gargoyles

St. Bernard and Gargoyles: A Fun Fact

Sadly, this will not be a post about gargoyles that look like St. Bernard dogs. But if anybody has seen one, please send me a picture!

Sacre Coeur Gargoyle St. Bernard and Gargoyles
Gargoyle on Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, Paris. Photo by Nargilé, who placed it in the Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Thanks Nargilé!

We don’t fully understand why medieval churches have gargoyles and grotesques. We usually assume that their secret has been lost to time. However, it seems like some people didn’t understand them even in the Middle Ages. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), for example, didn’t get the fad. He wrote:

What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read?* What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent’s head, there a fish with a quadruped’s head, then again an animal half horse, half goat… Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.

(St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) (1963). “Apologia ad Guillelmum abbatem”. In Leclercq, Jean; Rochais, H.M. Tractatus et Opuscula. S. Bernardi Opera. 3. Rome, Editiones cistercienses. via Wikipedia)

He sounds a bit like a modern-day old person decrying smart phone culture, doesn’t he? But this isn’t entirely surprising. Bernard founded the Cistercian order of monks, which was known for its austerity. The churches in Cistercian monasteries definitely didn’t have gargoyles. In Bernard’s time, they didn’t really have decoration of any kind.

But regardless of whether you think he’s a spoilsport or has a good point, his statement tells us something important. Whatever the reason that so many churches include gargoyles and grotesques, it wasn’t universally recognized even in its own time and place.

*As you may have realized, Bernard’s statement implies that some churches had grotesques inside them, not just outside. This was sometimes the case, though it’s not as common as grotesques on the ousides.

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