Friday, March 30, 2012

Gargoyles,Grotesques and Occult Art

Art is one of my first loves, particularly architecture. While we could all live fairly comfortably and reasonably in a cave or other enclosure like our primitive ancestors, we've instead chosen to embellish our homes with interesting textures and materials both inside and out. It's a wonderful, individual expression of who we are. It raises our spirits. It's entertaining and exciting to plan, design and construct our homes and other buildings in ways that are pleasing to the eye.

Gargoyle on the Palace of the Popes, Avignon, France
We make  the places we go into works of art, many times adding on cultural symbols to beautify the structures or using interesting materials. Those materials must be durable to last, yet malleable enough to express our inner fantasies.

Studying symbolism is a passion that has lead to a variety of pastimes and has broadened my appreciation of many artistic styles: I would be hard-pressed to say there is one particular style that leaves me totally cold, but I do lean toward ancient Greek and Roman, Medieval and Art Deco in my tastes. What I like at any given time depends on my mood...and my mood... and therefore my tastes... change often.

Darth Vader at National Cathedral
One of my favorite places to spend an afternoon is the National Cathedral in Washington, DC- The Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul- because the architectural styles and artwork are so diverse. A visit to the National Cathedral is a self-contained course in fine art- there are textiles, paintings, sculpture and masonry. The masonry is a favorite because my great-grandfather and some of his sons were stone masons and the medium fascinates me...but my passion is the gargoyles and grotesques that seem to leap out from everywhere.

A gargoyle is a figure containing a rain spout that protrudes out far enough from the edges of the roof to route water away from the building in order to help curb erosion. The Latin word gargula-gullet or throat-is the origin for the name of this piece. All gargoyles have either a tunnel through them or a pipe secreted away inside which terminates at the mouth of the figure, and distinguishes them from similar ornamental statuary known as grotesques. Grotesques, unlike gargoyles, are purely ornamental and non-functional. Both gargoyles and grotesques are designed to represent humans, birds and animals. Lions and dogs are the most commonly represented animals. Most animals and birds are anthropomorphized, that is, their animal and avid natures are blended into a fanciful rendering with somewhat human characteristics. It is easy to recognize a human-like smile or posture in these animals.

At the National Cathedral, there here are over a thousand grotesques. Departing from the traditional, they depict cultural images such as all the animals on Noah's Ark, to popular modern themes such as Darth Vader, Audrey the Man-eating  Plant from Little Shop of Horrors and cartoon characters. The wily troupe of masons and sculptors who are permanently assigned to the church have even included figures resembling themselves for a little twist of playfulness and irony! Cathedrals all of the world have been embellished with religious and occult figures for hundreds of years.

Apart from humans, birds and animals, there are the mythological creatures known collectively as chimera.The Chimera was originally a single mythological creature of Greek origin composed of differing animals and offering their individual characteristics such as breathing fire  In modern popular culture the word is often now  used to identify  monsters or creatures such as griffins, dragons,centaurs,cockatrices,etc. During the Medieval period a chimera was most often a synonymous representation of a demon or other type of minor devil. An excellent source of study of  these mythological creatures is  The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures bu John and Caitlin Matthews.[ ]

Chrysler Bldg.,NYC © Bettmann/Corbis photo
These fanciful creatures weren't used just for ornamentation, however. They were often used to illustrate and underscore a Biblical parable or other story for a largely illiterate  public in early times. The storyteller could point out a particular sculpture and have it visually set the tone for his story-and in turn someone present at that time would use the same sculpture to illustrate their memory of the story to yet another. In this way the great cathedrals of  Europe ( and other large buildings) became storybooks in stone.

The continuation of streamlining  architecture  saw the disappearance of fancy ornamentation until the Art Deco period. The fabulous Chrysler Building in Manhattan is a notable example of this type of style. It is a masterpiece of stunning beauty. The sixty-first story proudly displays four huge eagle head gargoyles majestically jutting out below the buildings chrome-plated sunburst crown. Even farther down are  four grotesques said to represent the hood ornament of a Plymouth automobile. The addition of these sculptures makes the Chrysler Building unique and instantly identifiable, so much so that it was featured in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters (

The addition of gargoyles in architecture has largely disappeared with the advent of modern drainage systems and technology dedicated to newer, less erosion prone building materials. Occasionally you can glimpse a stylized animal incorporated into the design of a new building (mostly as a logo or brand) but nothing like  the fearsome grotesques of a bye-gone era. The grandeur and magic of the gargoyle is yet one more thing lost to the mundane...but in the world of Light and Shadow, we remember.

1 comment:

  1. I like Gargoyles, they add a little something different and interesting to the building.

    Rachel x


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