GARGOYOLE ART: BECAUSE A CHURCH WITHOUT SATAN IS JUST NOT ENOUGH FUN
When the famed Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire in 2019, my first thought was: “Will the gargoyles be okay?”
This was perhaps not the most humane concern, but the heart wants what it wants. The New York Times reports that much of the original stonework survived the conflagration, although some of the old carvings will still need to be replaced.
As a kid, I learned that gargoyles and other grotesque figures were superstitious adornments to protect church buildings. But in my mind that never really made sense. Even at that age, the presence of such explicitly devilish imagery in church seemed…suspect.
Now I favor a new, deceptively simple idea: People create Satanic imagery because they simply like Satan. Even when they’re not supposed to, it’s still very hard to kick the habit.
French art historian Kelly Richman-Abdou writes that gargoyles are technically a practical element: “They double as waterspouts, catching and draining rainwater” and directing it away from the carved facades of elaborate stone buildings like Notre-Dame.
Devilish statues without a spout Richman-Abdou refers to as “grotesques.” Which feels rude, but I suppose they probably can’t read, so just no one tell them I guess.
Etymology blogger Adam Aleksick writes that the word gargoyle descends from the French gargoule, which roughly means “throat,” and possibly also from the “Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gwele, which meant ‘to swallow.'” I’ll let you all finish snickering before we move on.
However, 19th century art critic Frederic Stephens records a different, possibly critical origin of the word: The legend of La Gargouille, “a horrible dragon who ate the young women and children, and killed more men than he could eat.
“He rubbed himself against a church, and spire and tower came tumbling down,” Stephens wrote of the inconsiderate serpent, and he also “lay across the Seine and dammed the river,” and prevented ornamentation of the cathedral.
Eventually Saint Roman tames the dragon, part of a long line of saint-as-monster-hunter stories. In some variations, the villagers slay La Gargouille and hang his head from the undecorated cathedral wall. This feels a little extra, but this perhaps provided a word for similar accoutrement in the future.
The dragon’s antagonism toward the church and weakness against divinity is unsurprising, given that Revelation associates dragon and serpent imagery with Satan.
That the myth associates the dragon with the river is also, perhaps, another in a long, long line of tales about troublesome sea serpents and dragons (representative of chaos and discord) being overcome by divine power, part of the old “combat myth” motif.
Stories that Carleton University adjunct Shawna Dolansky writes that Jewish and later Christian writers probably recycled as tales of Leviathan, Rahab, and the Beast of Revelation–all eventually conflated with the devil.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that classical gargoyles take on a distinctly demonic or even Satanic cast. Art historian Dolores Herrero notes that the most common features of grotesque statuary, including “horns, tails, wings, pointed ears, a huge deformed mouth, crests, cloven hooves, a goaty beard, and so forth” also appeared on contemporary and future images of the devil.
Maybe this is part of why infamous medieval narc St. Bernard of Clairvaux declared them wholly inappropriate for the setting, writing:
“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 apes, those fierce lions, those half-men? Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.”
You know that Saint Bernard, always dogging it.
Such imagery remains divisive today, with art dealers Zhki’s Gallery writing, “There isn’t a piece in our gallery that is more controversial than our gargoyles,” and that many commenters still associate them with devilry.
Zhki curators propose the popular idea that gargoyle imagery is meant to work as a “talisman” to ward off evil. As a kid, this idea puzzled me: Shouldn’t a church scare away evil on its own? Isn’t it perhaps a bit compromising to invoke the image of the devil to drive away devils?
In those days I expected people’s religious beliefs to be consistent. It’s adorable, I know.
Overbearing Catholic zealot and terrible tipper (I’m presuming) Marian Horvat proposes a more practical idea: That these figures are damnation imagery, “a clear and constant reminder that the devil exists” and that final judgment is close at hand, strategically placed overlooking entrances and exits.
This seems grim, manipulative, and psychologically abusive, so it’s probably true. However, on the PBS YouTube channel, Doctor of Philosophy Emily Zarka comes to a different and entirely refreshing conclusion:
“There’s no singular symbolic meaning for gargoyles,” Zarka says. “They’re a flourish, an adornment that took on a life of their own. I like to think it all comes down to something simple: Humans seeks entertainment.”
What a pleasing idea: That people most likely do things because they enjoy them. What a wonderfully Satanic attitude. And yes, of course people find Satanic imagery entertaining and aesthetically pleasing: Why else keep those images in circulation century after century?
Narrow-minded orthodoxy suggests that it’s strange to pursue interest in the macabre, the unusual, or even, yes, the grotesque. But we all know that this isn’t true: These attractions are very, very common. We are not the strange ones, the buzzkills are.
The other day I began reading Gareth Medway’s Satanism history The Lure of the Sinister, and that’s a great title. Yes, we do have natural affinity for the sinister; one suspects that’s why we invented terms for it in the first place, and why we give it names. Including, when the mood strikes us, the name of Satan.