In many of the European cathedrals, some castles and numerous civil buildings, fantastic and terrifying beings observe us and watch over us in silence from above. They are the gargoyles, terrifying stone creatures, with sinister, Dantesque expressions, which represent anthropomorphic figures of tormented souls, grotesque animals, demons, witches, harpies, dragons, unicorns, basilisks, griffins, lions… monstrous beings, infernal and with a very defined functionality, and that reached the churches during the twelfth century. They were consolidated in the Gothic and then disappeared with the Baroque. With this article we will travel back in time to understand its functionality.
These peculiar stone guardians, according to legends, can come to life on dark moonless nights, and thus be able to wander under cover of the most absolute darkness, to return to the silence of their heights with the dawn and return to their harsh nature of stone. But, if we look for a not so mystical explanation, we find that the main function of the gargoyles is to drain the roofs, moving away the stream of water accumulated on the roofs, thus avoiding possible damage to the masonry and the mortar of the walls.
Although gargoyles became popular in churches, cathedrals, and buildings throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, they were actually used, albeit in a more rudimentary way, by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The origin of the name is thought to come from the Latin “gurgulio” (to gargle) or from the French word “gargouiller” which means to produce a noise similar to that of a liquid passing through a tube.
The following French legend clarifies and justifies the presence of these mythological beings in churches: Saint Romain, Bishop of Rouen, stood up to a winged dragon, with a very long neck and breathing fire through its mouth, called “Gargouille” and which wandered through the city. With the only help of a crucifix and a man condemned by justice, Saint Romain defeated the monster, who was cremated in Rouen. Realizing that the head and neck of the creature did not burn, as these were made of a tempered material so that it could resist the fire that came out of its throat, they decided to put it on the cornice of a church, and thus it would serve as protection of the temple. scared away evil spirits, and also served for the Catholic Church to instill fear among the population of that time, generally illiterate.
As we pointed out earlier, the Gothic elevated these mythological beings, who went from being simple lions or other animals during the Egyptian empire to authentic Gothic demons that looked splendid in cathedrals throughout Europe, but with the arrival of the Baroque era there was an evolution in these beings, who without losing the sinister tone of their features, gradually softened. Their faces, notably malevolent between the 13th and 15th centuries, became somewhat caricatured, accentuating their grotesque appearance. In that form they remained not only in churches and cathedrals, but also on the roofs of secular buildings and private houses.
The final point in the history of what gargoyles are came at the beginning of the 18th century. It was just that time when most buildings began to use downspouts to drain the gutters. In London, for example, in 1724, the construction of downspouts in new buildings was mandatory and little by little they disappeared. Today architects incorporate them as decorative elements.
Finally, it is important to point out that not all the figures that appear on the cornices of these buildings are gargoyles, there are many that are chimeras. The big difference lies in the utility: the gargoyles always have a gutter or conduit through which water comes out and have a practical purpose, while the chimeras are figures that, even imitating the shape of the gargoyles, are purely decorative.
In the following link you can access my photo gallery of gargoyles: https://500px.com/p/gargolots?view=photos
If you want to delve into this topic, it is highly recommended to consult the book La gargola y su iconografía by Dolores Herrero Ferrio.
And of course his website: doloresherrero.com