What is the purpose of Gargoyles on many churches?
Have you ever studied Gargoyles? They are fascinating creatures, who actually serve a purpose on buildings they adorn around the world.
The very thought conjures images of hideous, brooding creatures perched high above cities and villages The most terrifying ones look as though they might break free from the stone and attack. When gargoyles began appearing on churches throughout Europe in the 13th century, they served as decorative water spouts, crafted to preserve stone walls by diverting the flow of rainwater outward from rooftops. This function, technically speaking, distinguishes gargoyles from other stone beasts.
The word gargoyle derives from the French gargouille, meaning “throat.” This would appear to take its inspiration from the statues’ water-siphoning gullets, but in fact the name comes from the French legend of “La Gargouille,” a fearsome dragon that terrorized the inhabitants of the town of Rouen. For centuries, according to the story, the dragon swallowed up ships and flooded the town, until a priest named Romanus came along and agreed to vanquish the beast in exchange for the townspeople’s conversion to Christianity. Romanus tamed the dragon by making the sign of the cross, then led it into town where it was burned at the stake. The creature’s head, however, wouldn’t burn, so the townspeople cut it off and affixed it to their church. The gargouille’s head became a ward against evil and a warning to other dragons.
Because most Medieval Europeans could not read, the clergy needed visual representations of the horrors of hell to drive people to the sanctuary of the church. Placing gargoyles on the building’s exterior reinforced the idea that evil dwelt outside the church, while salvation dwelt within. Churches would also model gargoyles after the creatures worshipped by pagan tribes, thinking this would make their houses of worship appear more welcoming to them.
Despite their frightening appearance, Gargoyles are guardians who are seen to protect buildings from evil spirits, and do no harm to humans. Due to this, churches, which were considered holy places, often had these creatures on the roof to ward off the devil and demons.
Although the name gargoyle dates back just a few centuries, the practice of crafting decorative, animal-themed drain spouts reaches back several millennia. The ancient Egyptians loved lion statues, as did the Romans and the Greeks. The oldest gargoyle-like creation is a 13,000-year-old stone crocodile discovered in Turkey.
The world’s most famous gargoyles, and the ones that most influenced the popular wings-and-horns image of the creatures, are found on Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Although the cathedral was constructed in the 13th century, the gargoyles were part of an extensive restoration project in the mid 1800s.
If you get chance to see any of these mysterious adornments, you won’t regret studying them closely.