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Devils in the Details: The Return of the Gargoyle

Dante's impotent captive, reduced to mockery on church towers everywhere.

Le Stryge, the gargoyle on watch atop Notre Dame.
Photo: Jim Glenwright. Used by permission.


Le Stryge

The devil, the proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked. (St. Thomas More)

What might well be the most photographed medieval gargoyle in Europe is neither medieval, nor strictly speaking, a gargoyle.

You've probably seen Le Stryge on a postcard. A pensive, horned little fellow, he is perched atop the left-hand buttress of the north tower of Notre Dame. He is actually of Victorian vintage, a replacement for a lost bit of grotesquerie. He is just a statue; he does not gargle water as a gargoyle ought. His creator, the great neo-Gothic rationalist Viollet-le-Duc, considered a gargoyle essentially a glorified stone waterspout, and preferred the more prosaic "beasts," and later chimères, or chimeras, to describe such flights of fancy as Le Stryge.

The idea of adding gargoyles to a building may seem like an exercise in frivolous anachronism, yet it shows gargoyles seldom ever leave for good. One can happily report that the gargoyle is alive and well today—though mostly as garden statuary peddled by SkyMall, or good-luck knickknacks intended to ward off post-modern evil. If you're in the market for artistically sculpted fertilizer, you can even purchase a "Grow-Goyle" made of manure.

In an age when bloodsucking Transylvanians peddle sugary cereals and teach our children remedial math, it is no surprise that we have turned Satan's minions into something cuddly. I ran across a piece penned by a Catholic medievalist that saw something sinister about such gargoyle tchotchkes. One could idly dismiss such thoughts as Dana Carvey-style church lady panic, but by seeing only silliness, modernity still gets it wrong. The gargoyle was spawned by the intersection of two of our most enduring mysteries: the problem of evil—and comedy.

A few definitions are in order. Our melancholic little fiend Le Stryge is a chimera, a non-functional bit of grotesque sculpture; it lacks the familiar thrusting pose of his cousin the gargoyle. He, by comparison, is a sort of glorified waterspout, and earns his name by gargling—gargouille, the old French for throat, being related to the modern gargariser, to gargle. There's a folk-tale etymology that purportedly explains it as well, but we'll get to it later. Both the chimera and the gargoyle are grotesques, a catch-all term covering anything odd on a medieval structure. Grotesques are not just ugly, they're downright weird—Jack-o'the-Green peering through foliage, hermaphroditic satyrs, centaurs, severed heads with three faces, and one-headed animals with two bodies—the raw material of nightmares and unreadable airport novels about the Knights Templar.

The most iconic grotesques have more than a whiff of brimstone to them—howling little figures stopping their ears up with their fingers lest they hear the Gospel; humanoids pulling faces, blowing raspberries, even defecating; dragons of all shapes and sizes; goat-headed birds; and, in Ireland, the Sheela-na-gig, which is usually shown doing something we cannot discuss in a family publication. Most gargoyles and grotesques are simply amusing, or even solemnly and conventionally symbolic—pilgrims with their staffs, monks, nuns, dogs, cows, rams, lions; all the usual denizens of the great chain of being and the allegorical medieval zoo. These can easily be explained by the standard iconography of the period. The devils, however, remain inexplicable.


What to do with the Devil?

Or over-explained. Depending on who you ask, gargoyles and their extended kith and kin might be conquered demons and damned souls, apotropaic "holy pit bulls" designed to ward off evil, old wives' tales rendered in stone, representations of unearthed fossils, pagan remnants intended to lure in converts, or pagan remnants slipped in as a blow for the old religion. Or they may have something to do with constellations. None of these quite makes sense in isolation, neither are any of them particularly funny. Pagan hypotheses are less satisfactory when considered chronologically and geographically than might appear at first glance, while claiming in a literal, sacramental sense that they scare off evil might make sense to a modern professor of comparative religion but would be puzzling to a medieval theologian of Thomistic sophistication.

Gargoyles done for St. George's Chapel, Newport, Rhode Island.
Photo: Cram and Ferguson Architects. Used by permission.


St. George's Chapel

Our fascination with the demonic gargoyle to the exclusion of all his brethren is a product of the nineteenth century. The restorations of the period strove to improve on, rather than simply copy, the past. Viollet-le-Duc did not hesitate to provide the "carnival emperor" Napoleon III with a fourteenth-century-style railway carriage for his travels. Jean Lassus, Viollet-le-Duc's sidekick in the Notre Dame restoration caper, might be seen as the starchy, older half of the duo, but his gargoyles and grotesques were considerably darker and more disturbing than Viollet-le-Duc's. As a devout Catholic, he took evil seriously. Much of Paris did, too, it seems—though for many their idea of evil took the form of disturbing new ideas, or turned into outright sympathy for the Devil. Michael Camille's exhaustive The Gargoyles of Notre Dame: The Monsters of Modernity (with Le Stryge on the cover) links the period's gargoyle-mania to everything from left-wing revolution, anti-Semitism, and eugenics to the nineteenth-century's troubling fascination with the occult and Satanism. Every era gets the gargoyles it deserves. And today, with sin a taboo topic and with much of the West in a comfortable and distinctly unfunny malaise, our conversion of the gargoyle into a mere figure of fun seems like whistling past a graveyard.


Every era gets the gargoyles it deserves

The nineteenth century gargoyle was too Manichaean and Byronic; the twentieth century gargoyle is too silly. You need both—and the gargoyle must inspire both terror and laughter to do its job properly. Ralph Adams Cram, the early twentieth-century Boston neo-Gothicist, could think like a medieval man as required. He frequently incorporated gargoyles into the many churches and chapels he built, with his own face serving as the subject of at least two stone grotesques. He saw the Middle Ages as suffused with joy:

. . . Whatever they may have lacked, the Middle Ages were a time when fun was "fast and furious," certainly in no respect behind our own day [1930], the chief difference being that then it expressed itself in more comely and with more really amusing ways than through the "comic strips," the radio humourists, and other dramatic outlets for contemporary joy . . . Just because they were sincerely religious people and involved in the sacraments . . . of their religion from the day of birth to that of death—and after—it is assumed they . . . must have been sad, terror-stricken and morose.

Gargoyles done for St. George's Chapel, Newport, Rhode Island.
Photo: Cram and Ferguson Architects. Used by permission.


St. George's Chapel

We may conclude that medieval man before us both laughed and shuddered at the stone devils perched above him, but why did he? And to what purpose? Some churchmen presumably found grotesques and gargoyles a distraction. Here all writers on the subject seem to be required by law to quote Saint No-Fun himself, Bernard of Clairvaux, as witness:

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.

While the Romanesque churches of his day featured plenty of grotesques, the gargoyle as we think of it today had yet to glide in on its leathery wings when these words were written: the habit of citing St. Bernard's complaint is a bit of an anachronism.


The crucifixion of Christ is the greatest practical joke in the history of the world, and the Devil was the butt of it

But monks require one thing in their churches and the layman another. Some shadow of the sentiments that animated medieval Christians here may be found in that second great era of architectural comedy, the Baroque, in the gemütlich uplands of Bavaria, where the Risus Paschalis, or Easter Laughter, was a venerable custom. Back when he was merely Josef Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI once gave a radio sermon that touched on the matter:

All the words of the Risen One manifest this joy—this laughter of redemption: If you see what I see and have seen, if you catch a glimpse of the whole picture, you will laugh! (cf. John 16:20) . . . The Easter homily had to contain a story that made people laugh, so that the church resounded with a joyful laughter. That may be a somewhat superficial form of Christian joy. But is there not something very beautiful and appropriate about laughter becoming a liturgical symbol? And is it not a tonic when we still hear, in the play of cherub and ornament in baroque churches, that laughter which testified to the freedom of the redeemed?

The crucifixion of Christ is the greatest practical joke in the history of the world, and the Devil was the butt of it. This laughter runs through all the mystery and miracle plays where the Devil may tempt and threaten and even drag the occasional soul down with him, but where his triumph rings hollow. It is what drives Provence to celebrate St. Martha's victory over the female monster Tarasca (a six-legged turtle-shelled sort of proto-Gamera), by turning her into a parade float.

Maquette for new gargoyles for a church in Louisiana.
Photo: Cram and Ferguson Architects. Used by permission.


Creole maquette

Some of this mediaeval spirit lives on in Latin America. There one may still occasionally see men in devil costumes dancing and singing on Corpus Christi, the unwilling but powerless slaves of the Eucharist. To laugh at a ludicrous devil that we know exists is a far different and more salutary experience than to nervously chuckle at one that we hope does not.

Medieval Christians saw the Devil for what he was—a malevolent soul-devouring creep, but only if he could tempt us first to listen to him. One cannot help but be a bit blasé about the prince of darkness if one knows an exorcist will put him to flight. Even Hollywood understands this: if there's something strange in your neighbourhood (pace Dan Ackroyd), you're going to call Fr. Merrin. Surprisingly, this very medieval idea crops up in the battle hymn of the Reformation. In Ein feste Burg is unser Gott (which we know as A Mighty Fortress is Our God), we read "one little word will fell him"—him being Lucifer. But Martin Luther, who threw his own excrement at Satan, had a residual streak of medieval earthiness to him: "The Devil," he wrote, "cannot stand gaiety." Luther was not always this sanguine, and in a divided post-Reformation Europe, it looks almost as if the devil had slipped his leash. Witness the demon-haunted King James, the Loudon possessions, eighteenth century vampire hysteria, and our very own Salem witch trials. No wonder Enid Strict is always keeping an eye out for you-know-who.

But for us, as for the medieval, the father of lies should be, yes, "a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour," as St. Peter puts it, but also Dante's impotent captive imprisoned in the frozen heart of hell, and the buffoonish tempter of the Mystery Plays. Unlike Geraldine Jones, we can never simply say "the Devil made me do it" without blaming ourselves.

I earn my daily bread in part by designing Gothic churches as an employee of Cram and Ferguson Architects. Founded more than a century ago by our "fast and furious" friend, Ralph Adams Cram, the firm continues to apply his own high standards to sacred architecture. And naturally, that includes gargoyles. Even if not functional water-garglers in the old French fashion, our gargoyle ornaments do everything else they are meant to do. Four ornament the tower of Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston, Texas, finished in 2004, depicting the winged beasts that represent the Evangelists in Christian art. The firm also recently produced and saw sculpted another, more properly sinister set for a church in Louisiana to spice up an otherwise ordinary church tower. It simply didn't look right without gargoyles. Designed by firm president Ethan Anthony and created by sculptress Danielle Krcmar, they are superlative monsters, melancholic, ghoulish, and just slightly comical.


"The devil is a jackass"

I promised you when we started this excursion a proper fairy-tale about the word "gargoyle." This is what French folklore says on the subject. Once upon a time, in illo tempore, a water-monster named Gargouille dwelt in the Seine, devouring sailors, attacking boats, spouting jets of water, and causing floods. Naturally, the people turned to the holy archbishop of Rouen, Romain, who coaxed the monster onto land (a convict was supposedly used as bait), and subdued the animal with the sign of the cross. Gargouille was slaughtered and burnt by the townsfolk, though his head and throat were not consumed by the fire. As a sign of thanksgiving to God, they were mounted on the town's cathedral, where they remained, Deo Gratias.

And there it is: a monster reduced to mockery through a miraculous practical joke. La Gargouille is now merely a gargler. Or, to quote the dying words of Bishop William Ullathorne of Birmingham, "The devil is a jackass."

Help us spread the word:
Matthew Alderman Matthew Alderman
Matthew Alderman, a graduate of Notre Dame's distinguished traditional architecture program, is an architect, lecturer, and illustrator. ... read more »

Posted in Arts, Cities, Legacy, Religion.

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