Lion-head water spouts were used in classical architecture. The earliest medieval examples date from the twelfth century. Squat and few in number to begin with, by the thirteenth century gargoyles became more numerous and had developed the projecting form characteristic of gothic cathedrals. Because of their exposed position gargoyles are vulnerable to erosion, consequently most are reproductions or inventions of the restorer.
The profanity of medieval gargoyles contrast with sacred images decorating doorways and the interior of churches, though grotesque imagery on a smaller scale is found here too. This opposition is partly explicable in terms of purpose and location. Gargoyles are placed high up on buildings disgorging water, that flows along concealed channels through gaping mouths. Occasionally other orifices are employed, as at Autun Cathedral where a man appears to defecate on unwary passers-by.
Human figures usually adopt either abusive or fearful attitudes. Figures shouting or pulling their mouths open with their fingers are common. Other characters are found clinging to buildings in apparent fear, or there can be depictions of individuals who imagine they support the entire edifice. Gargoyles combining a number of figures are not uncommon. At Heckington (Lincolnshire, England) a winged devil carries off a woman. Others, derived from antiquity, pour water from large jars (e.g. St Mark's, Venice).
Until recently scholars have largely ignored or declined to interpret such images. Emile Mâle (1913) considered them meaningless. Some nineteenth-century antiquarians thought of them as pagan survivals. Recent scholarship has interpreted such sculptures as images of sin and folly or references to vernacular culture: Michael Camille calls them the opposite of angels, ‘all body and no soul — a pure projector of filth’.
Literary references include Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, where a gargoyle, ‘too human to be called like a dragon, too impish to be like a man, too animal to be like a fiend, and not enough like a bird to be called a griffin’, vomited a stream of water ‘into the midst of Fanny Robin's grave’ scattering the repentant Troy's flowers. In Victor Hugo's Notre–Dame de Paris, Quasimodo is a living gargoyle.
With the Gothic revival the gargoyle, made redundant by the drainpipe, acquired a picturesque role. In France, Viollet–le–Duc was responsible for more gargoyles than any medieval mason, whilst Ruskin mentions them only once in more than 40 volumes, delighting in their fantastic outline, ‘when they had no work to do but open their mouths and pant in the sunshine’.
Camille, M. (1992). Image on the edge: the margins of medieval art. Reaktion Books, London.
gar·goyle / ˈgärˌgoil/ • n. a grotesque carved human or animal face or figure projecting from the gutter of a building, typically acting as a spout to carry water clear of a wall.DERIVATIVES: gar·goyled adj.