Halloween will soon be upon us and we will be mercilessly bombarded with all that is dark and scary. This is the time when ugly is beautiful and fear mongering is the norm. My thoughts turn therefore to a varied yet common motif donning mainly historical buildings of most western metropolises, Toronto being no exception.
Blissfully unaware we all go about our daily business under the protective gazes of grotesque gargoyles.
Gargoyles are actually the good guys for they are said to frighten off and protect those structures, old buildings or churches from any evil, harmful spirits.
About AD 631-641, a colourful French legend sprang up about St. Romanus (“Romain”). In this the former chancellor of the Merovingian king Clotaire II who was made bishop of Rouen, recounted the tale of how he’d delivered the country around Rouen from a diabolical monster called Gargouille or Goji. The description of La Gargouille pegged him to be a typical dragon, with bat like wings, long neck, and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth.
It is natural to have multiple versions of such a popular fable: In one scenario, St. Romanus was said to have subdued the creature using a crucifix. In another St. Romanus succeeded in capturing the beast with the help of the only volunteer, a condemned man. In both cases the monster was led back to Rouen and burned, but only partially. You see the head and neck, being tempered by its own fire breath, could not be incinerated. Undaunted, the head of Gargouille was still utilized for protection and promptly mounted on the walls of the newly built church to scare off evil spirits.
Since then, in commemoration of St. Romain, the Archbishops of Rouen were granted the right to set a prisoner free on the day that the reliquary of the saint was carried in procession.
During the 12th century when gargoyles were manifest in Europe the medieval world already held the view that many creatures exhibited varied mystical powers and several animals were privileged by being anthropomorphized, (that is to say, human qualities ascribed to them).
The Roman Catholic Church, by then an influential entity, seizing this opportunity, utilized these images to convey certain ideas to the illiterate populous and also to convert pagans to Catholicism.
Gargoyles were viewed in two ways by the church; the primary use was to convey the concept of evil through the form of the gargoyle. Some medieval clergy viewed gargoyles as a form of idolatry, for example, in the 12th century St. Bernard of Clairvaux was famous for speaking out against gargoyles. Also gargoyles were said to scare evil spirits away from the structure, thereby reassuring the congregants that their church was a safe haven from evil spirits.
On the practical side, Gargoyles serve another vital purpose in architecture. Usually an elongated, granite beast with a spout, was designed to direct the flow of rainwater off of the roof. A trough, cut in the back of the gargoyle (the length of the gargoyle determines how far water is thrown from the wall) directed rainwater to exit through the open mouth. Ingeniously therefore, the damaging rainwater was also steered away from the masonry walls and the mortar between to prevent erosion.
Gargoyles had their humble beginnings in the form of fountainheads. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans fancied these animal configured waterspouts. The term gargoyle was most often applied to medieval work, but throughout history some means of water diversion, when not conveyed in gutters, were adopted. In ancient Egyptian architecture, gargoyles showed little variation, typically carved in the form of a lion’s head. Similar lion-mouthed water spouts were also seen on Greek temples, modeled in the marble or terracotta cymatium of the cornice.
Many medieval cathedrals included gargoyles and chimeras. Although most had grotesque features, over the years the term gargoyle had come to include all types of images. Some gargoyles were depicted as monks, or as combinations of real animals and people, many of which were humorous. Unusual animal/human hybrids, or chimeras, did not act as rainspouts and are more properly called grotesques. They served more as ornamentation, but are now synonymous with gargoyles.
Both ornamented and unornamented water spouts projecting from roofs at parapet level were a common device used to shed rainwater from buildings until the early eighteenth century. After that time more and more buildings installed drainpipes to carry the water from the roof gutters to the ground and only very few buildings using gargoyles were constructed. This was because some people found them frightening and sometimes heavy ones were eroded and fell off, causing damage.
In 1724, the London Building Act passed by the Parliament of Great Britain made the use of downpipes compulsory on all new construction spelling the general demise of Gargoyles and relegating them to place in history and fable.
Still Gargoyles are popular as ornamentation on distinctively styled modern buildings. There they not only live but also thrive, frightening and fuelling the imaginations of new generations.