The Origins Of Gargoyles in Europe

By Lee Kane / April 10th 2015

So whats so good about gargoyles? Imagine looking up at the parapets and walls of a church or cathedral on a foggy evening and slowly they all start coming to life, crawling down the sides of the walls (and chewing on the heads of tourists like me) or taking flight into the dark of the night.

image of A lazy looking gargoyle
A chilled out looking gargoyle - Cathedrale de Moulins

(Click on the images to enlarge)

These peculiar pieces of sculpture can be found protruding from most of the cathedrals and churches in france and all over europe. A european army of gargoyles! All at my command! Mwahahaha (that is actually a word in the Oxford dictionary).

What are gargoyles for, what do they do (in the bath).

Gargoyles have a couple of purposes. Numero uno, to look scary and entice believers into the church, although how this works i'm unsure as personally i might think twice about walking into a building which has been gargoyled. However the church used them to express the evil and wickedness of the world outside which supposedly would help usher the locals into the good house of the Lord. They were also put there to scare off any evil spirits from entering the church.

Secondly they were used as a way to disperse rain water via a channel cut into the back of the gargoyle to which the water could run through and then out of their mouths, and therefore limiting any water damage to the building. The Dutch word for Gargoyle is Waterspuwer, which means "water spitter" or "water vomiter".

image of Gargoyles on the western front of Cathedral Notre Dame Amiens
image of Grotesques Cathedral Notre Dame Amiens
Gargoyles on the western portal of Cathedral Notre Dame Amiens

What are the origins of Gargoyles

Where they come from nobody knows, however the use of animal shaped water spouts for guttering purposes were used as far back as the Egyptians and Greeks, and would often be in the shape of a lions head. Some people believe gargoyles were created from the myths and magical beasts that were around at the time of the creation of the buildings.

image of a big santas head
Gargoyles on the parapets of Cathedral Notre Dame Amiens

The Story Of St Romanus and Gargouille

Personally i like the story of St Romanus who in the 7th century hunted down and killed a legendary dragon called Gargouille that lived along the river Seine. This evil dragon had been wreaking havoc in the town of Rouen in France by eating farmers sheep, cattle and even the people. So St Romanus decided to confront the monster. After trying to rally a posse to kill the beast the only help he could find was a convict, a man who had been condemned to death. So off they set.

It was not long before they found the dragon and after an awe inspiring conflict that raged for hours and led to many of the towns people fleeing for their lives, Romanus who was the bishop of Rouen at the time, drew his cross from the back of his pants and thrust it into the dragons face yelling, "yield to me Gargouille!" A heavenly beam of light shot from the cross and stopped the monster in its tracks, bowing its head, Romanus tethered the dragon with his stole and led it to the parvis of Rouen cathedral where he slayed the creature and set it on fire.

Its body burned for several days and nights, yet after the flames had gone out, its head and neck still remained. Not knowing what to do with it, they decided to mount it atop of the newly built Rouen cathedral to warn other dragons and evil spirits that they were not welcome. The idea caught on all over the land, and so gargoyles were born. As the only man to help St Romanus was a convict, out of gratitude to his bravery Romanus granted him his freedom and from there on for a thousand years, every year, to commemorate the death of the beast, it was the bishops privilege to set free one prisoner from deaths row.

Gargoyles Amiens

Not all gargoyles are gargoyles, some are what they call grotesques, the distinction being gargoyles are meant for dispersing rain water from the church parapets, whereas any creature that is not meant for this purpose is called a grotesque. Both gargoyles and grotesques are often chimeras, a mix of different parts of an animal to create one. They also come in other forms such as hideous looking monks and demons.

image of Gargoyles Saint Pierre Et Saint Paul Cathedral
Weathered gargoyles and grotesques
image of gargoyles notre dame Paris
These demonic looking gargoyles are on the parapets of Notre Dame Paris

While hunting around for gargoyles to capture and shoot with my camera, i ended up inside the magnificent cathedrals you find them festooned upon. Inside these cathedrals are many beautiful and wondrous pieces of art and sculpture.

Inside Cathedrale de Moulins i took a photo of the nave and a portrait of an angel which can be found at the back of the building, but what captivated me the most was the nun praying to Christ. I could not find any information on them or any images online so these could be a world premiere!

image of a nun praying to jesus
A religious sculpture inside Moulins Cathedral
image of a life like nun sculpture Moulins

Along the same wall of the cathedral is a sculpture of The Lamentation Of Christ, also a stained glass window of The Crucifixion Of Christ with the coat of arms of Cardinal De Bourbon at the bottom of the window.

The interior of Cathedrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens is even more spectacular, so spectacular in fact that even if i had hung out there for the whole day, i still would not have had enough time, to have taken the photo's of all the gobsmacking wonders it had to offer.

image of Aimens Cathedral
The Western Side of Aimens Cathedral

On the west side of the cathedral where you enter is a magnificent Portal Of The Last Judgement. I felt sorry for those being led into the mouth of hell (image below). One of the little fellas looks very perplexed almost as if to say "what did i do" or maybe "is there some way we can sort this out". Originally all of these fantastically detailed little figures were painted, which now thanks to the digital age can be reproduced with projected lights which are switched on in the evenings during the summer months.

image of sinners being lead into the mouth of hell
The Portal Of The Last Judgement

France has many Notre Dames, which means Our Lady or Mother, and well worth the visit especially if your love gargoyles. The best way to get to see many of these cathedrals is by road so be sure to read my post French Road Signs And Their Meanings, which includes lots of information for any keen european motorist.

I will leave it here with four of my favourite photos from inside Amiens Cathedral.

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