The Multi-Tasking Gargoyles

Throughout France and elsewhere in Europe, many gothic-inspired structures and cathedrals feature gargoyles adorning their exteriors.  Gargoyles are often fearsome, fantastical, and humorous and were originally included in gothic architectural design to serve two purposes – to scare off evil spirits and as waterspouts directing water drainage away from the structure.

Curiously, no two gargoyles are the same.  This follows medieval tradition of not repeating the same gargoyle design.  Each unique gargoyle is also referred to as a grotesque, an architectural term used to describe something ugly or distorted. While these gurgling figures are more prominently associated with Medieval France, they date back to ancient societies of Rome, Greece and Egypt.

Gargoyle (or gargouille) is derived from the French word for throat (gorge).  The true gargoyle has a hollow neck attached at one end to the gutter system of a structure.  Water flows from the gutter through the gargoyle before dramatically cascading from its mouth away from the building.

Gothic gargoyles were also inspired by French folklore. According to legend, Saint Romain—the bishop of Rouen in the 7th century—saved townspeople from the terror of a fire-breathing beast named La Gargouille. Though the monster was captured by Romain and burned at the stake, its head and neck mysteriously remained intact. Romain decided to nail the creature’s severed head to the church, where it served as a waterspout—and a terrifying trophy—for years to come.

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Sources: by Kelly Richman-Abdou and Margherita Cole June 7, 2022 by Historic England by Leticia Quesada, November 30, 2016

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