The Symbolism of Gargoyle Statues

Gargoyle statues are a popular choice for our homes and gardens today. Our fascination with these grotesque creatures is, it seems, just as prevalent now as it was in Medieval times.

Neo-gothic artists take their inspiration from 15th century flamboyant Gothic designs, creating modern day gargoyle statues in “cathedral style”. Gargoyle statues allow the artist a great deal of freedom in style and expression and incorporate a range of styles from the monstrous and grotesque to the amusing or whimsical.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, living in 12th-century France, made this now famous complaint of the gargoyle carvings he saw around him:

“What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters under the very eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, strange savage lions and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man? 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.”

While no ancient texts exist that explain the meaning of these strange creatures, we do know that artisans as far back as the Bronze Age used grotesque forms including gorgons, griffins and sphinxes to avert the powers of evil. Perhaps medieval man felt he could ward off evil forces by presenting an equally powerful array of evil strength.

Some believe that grotesque gargoyles were intended to be guardians of the church, magic signs to ward of the devil. Amalgamations of animals, humans and mythical creatures have long being used by artists to create frightening images. The devil was said to be always watching, much as gargoyles were always looking down on passersby. Everywhere one looked these silent observers were patiently watching.

The fact that these grotesque creatures were permitted on the medieval church, otherwise embellished with beautiful artwork, could be explained by the notion that the devil is actually on God’s side, doing God’s work when he punishes the wicked. Many gargoyles are demon like and appear to have alighted on the ledges of the church, frozen in flight but ready to swoop down on the unsuspecting at any time.

A popular belief is that grotesque gargoyles were used to educate by frightening or shocking a largely illiterate Pagan population into “behaving”. Physical deformities in medieval times were seen as an act of the devil so these gargoyles served as a warning to sinners.

Some believe these monstrous gargoyles represented the souls of humans condemned for their sins. The price for sinning, although they were spared from eternal damnation, would be to be turned to stone. This would correspond with the theory of gargoyles being for education, as they then would have been reminders of what could happen to those who did not obey religious laws.

However, not all gargoyles were intended to frighten, reprimand or threaten. Some appear to have a more profane purpose; to entertain or amuse. Rather than inspiring dread the more comical gargoyles have lively faces and animated poses, conveying a remarkable sense of energy and giving a great deal of character to the buildings on which they are found. However, even these more comical gargoyles could have well conveyed more than just fun for their creators and original viewers, for humorous imagery can often be used to say things that could not be said, and satire has long been used to confront unpleasant, controversial, or frightening issues.

That gargoyles can be interpreted as both good and evil – is served by a description found in the Roman d’Abladane written by a 13th century bishop. It describes how there were two gargoyles on then gateway of Amiens which could evaluate the motivation of each person who came into the city. If one had evil intentions the gargoyles would spit venom on them so horrible it would cover them and they would die. But when the lord of the city came he would be showered with gold from one gargoyle and silver from the other.

Modern day gargoyles come in range of styles, both frightening and entertaining. The one you chose and the symbolism or meaning attached to it, really comes down to your own personal style. Gargoyle statues are believed to offer protection from evil and many people display them near the front door of the house or in a prominent part of the garden.

Leave a Reply