Art History · Gargoyles

An Epiphany about Gargoyles

When I was in New York City for the Winter Antiques Show (subject of my most recent marathon post), I decided to engage in a little gargoyle hunt on my way to and from the Armory. I looked up at each building I passed in hopes of seeing little faces peering back at me from on high, but I didn’t really see much of anything. And slowly, I began to realize something important – something that will greatly impact my gargoyle research going forward.

By Vassil (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Those little guys are way the heck up there! I know that this seems like a stupid thing to be surprised by. Pretty much every book and article about gargoyles talks about the fact that they are typically located at extreme altitudes and in odd places on buildings, making it quite difficult for the typical viewer to see them in any great detail. However, the big, high-resolution photographs shown in books and on the internet distort our perception greatly, and I am now realizing that the effects of height and vantage point can only be appreciated when experienced firsthand.

By Bizutage (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
I am well aware that my viewing experience in twenty-first-century New York City was not the same as it would have been in medieval Europe. Gothic churches differ greatly in both shape and height from modern skyscrapers and office buildings, and the layouts of medieval towns, nowhere near as heavily developed as today’s cities, would have allowed buildings to be viewed from a distance and created better sight lines than I had peering straight up out the windows of my taxicab. However, as I craned my neck and strained my eyes, trying to figure out whether a group of little carvings were faces, flowers, or geometric shapes, I realized that if a gargoyle is so far away that I can’t even be sure I’m looking at one, then all the conversations scholars have about the precise details of its appearance are probably pretty meaningless.

Would you have any idea what this creepy little dude was if you saw him from far away?
By Selbymay (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As I know I have mentioned before, some scholars believe that gargoyles were meant to teach viewers something, such as a myth or moral, and that their appearances were supposed to act on passers-by psychologically and emotionally. But how can a demon-like gargoyle remind me that I will go to hell if I fail to pray when he is so far away that I run the risk of confusing him with an acanthus leaf? It occurs to me that other places were grotesques are typically found also obscure them (as on a miserichord) or render them on such a miniature scale that the specifics of their appearances are similarly vague (as in the marginal illustrations of manuscripts). If the details of these carvings were considered important in the Middle Ages, it was certainly not important that the average person actually be able to see them. I have heard some scholars suggest spiritual or even religious rationales for the existences of gargoyles, proposing that their importance may not necessarily hinge on their clear visibility to those passing them below. I am now looking forward to exploring these hypotheses with new interest in my research.

Here are two suggested readings on the topic. Both of these books address the issue of gargoyles’ visibility and its possible implications.

Benton, Janetta Rebold. Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings. New York: Abbeville Publishing Group, 1997.

Trew Crist, Darlene. American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2001.

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