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Of Gargoyles, Chimeras and Grotesques

And the truth behind the 'astronaut' carving on 12th-century Spanish cathedral

By Kamna KirtiPublished about a year ago 3 min read
Gargoyle on the west front at Salisbury Cathedral. Source- Public Domain

Who knew decorative water drains could be so fascinating? Originally crafted to prevent eroding and corrosion of cathedrals and religious buildings, Gargoyles are surrounded by myth and legacy. The idea is to gather the rainwater and throw it out, clear of the structure's wall through the snarling, gaping mouth onto the street - often on the pedestrians below.

Religious interpretation of gargoyles and grotesques

With gargoyles and grotesque, the line between good and evil often blurs. A lot is left to the viewer's discretion. The sculptures depict monde renversé (upside-down world) where the lines blur between animals and humans and their roles are reversed.

Some argue that these monstrous creatures were merely stone demons - meant to ward off 'evil-forces' lurking outside the sacred place.

Another interpretation suggests that the structures were embodiments of the souls condemned to hell. While they were saved from eternal damnation, they had to pay the cost of their transgression by no longer being allowed inside a church and by guarding it by sitting atop.

The fearsome destructiveness of these beasts also reminded the church's followers of the need for the church's protection during the medieval period.

The architectural significance of gargoyles and grotesques

A gargoyle on the Cathedral of Bayeux in Normandy, France

In architecture, a gargoyle is a carved grotesque designed to convey water away from the sidewalls of a building, thereby preventing corrosion. Gargoyles have a cut in the back to facilitate the flow of water through their mouth (or in some cases posteriors), in the form of drainage. Such buildings often have multiple gargoyles.

The term gargoyle originates from the French word 'gargouille', which roughly translates to 'throat', and similarly derived words from the root word gar, which means to 'swallow', representing the gurgling of sound.

When not constructed for drainage and only ornamental purpose, the sculptures are referred to as 'grotesques'.

The evolution of gargoyles & grotesque humor

By the end of the Gothic period, the cravings of gargoyles grew more elaborate, and lighthearted human figures started appearing as comic relief more often than guardians.

Often, the heads are portrayals are so lifelike that it is asserted that the stone carvers possibly represented their own psychological states in these sculptures. Another amusing depiction is the 'mouth-puller', who contorts his face to mock the worshippers.

Another one of the depictions is the gargoyle sticking out the tongue almost in an embarrassed expression. There is also a sexual undertone and nudity in some of the gargoyles.

Iconography behind the gargoyles, grotesques & chimeras

Gargoyles are most commonly represented by dragons with batlike wings, a long neck, and fierce eyes and expressions.

The gargoyles are often accentuated with large protruding noses, wrinkled skin, and thick hair. Often disembodied heads are also portrayed which symbolizes paganism and martyrs.

The symbolic meaning of animals has changed over the centuries. 

- Dogs are watchful guards

- Doves symbolize peace

- Dragons symbolize the devil

- Lions are symbolic of guardianship

- Elephants are signs of peace

Often, the gargoyles are a hybrid of multiple animals. These hybrids are called Chimeras.

Astronaut gargoyle on a 12th-century cathedral?

Sculpture of astronaut added to New Cathedral, Salamanca, Spain, during renovations in 1992

Sculpture of an astronaut was added to New Cathedral, Salamanca, Spain, during renovations in 1992. Source-Wikipedia

An astronaut gargoyle found on an ancient Spanish cathedral sparked interest in recent years. The Salamanca cathedral was built-in 1102 and to see a technologically accurate depiction on the walls is quite remarkable.

Unfortunately, the origins of this gargoyle are neither ancient nor mysterious. The astronaut was added during a restoration carried out in 1992. The astronaut is the symbolic representation of the 20th century.

Gargoyles are celebrated as clever engineering devices and are still being used to inspire the idea of medieval architecture in modern buildings. Some truly notable examples are on the Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C., USA. There, all of the 112 exterior figures were hand-carved by skilled artists, just like they would have been in the Middle Ages.


1. A Collision of Gargoyles

2. The History of Gargoyles & Grotesques

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About the Creator

Kamna Kirti

Art enthusiast. I engage with art at a deep level. I also share insights about entrepreneurship, founders & nascent technologies.

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