Monday, August 23, 2010


I have a pet theory that in Western culture everything starts with the French. They invent it, think it first—but they don’t get the credit. Commercial exploitation of the thing is by the Americans. And the Japanese finally figure out how to make it properly. In this context, the other day—and the impetus for this was a post by Montag here—it tickled me no end that that, to me, most favorite architectural feature, the gargoyle, comes from the French word gargouille, which means spout or, more specifically, water-spout. That word, in turn, comes from the Latin gurgulio, gullet, throat, or windpipe. It’s an onomatopoetic word because swallowing has a kind of sound, most pronounced in gargling.

Gargoyles and I go a long way back. I spent much of my vacation time in the U.S. Army, in Europe, visiting gothic cathedrals, and there a bond never to be broken was established—but so heedless is true love, I never really bothered to research the subject. The genuine gargoyle, you see, is not merely a decoration. No. It has functional purpose. Function always comes first where money is involved. To make the most of something necessarily there—now that’s a sign of high civilization. And so the middle ages turned the necessary water spout into an object of art.

Now it turns out that a true gargoyle must spout water, led to it by hidden guttering, whereas, strictly speaking, a purely decorative gargoyle is known as a grotesque. And I learned this because Montag’s post, on the broader subject of “Grotesque” caused me to look deeper into the subject—and there it was, again, my old friend, the gargoyle.

Now that word, grotesque, turns out to have come from the Latin grotto, meaning cave or hollow. Here too the derivation of the concept is convoluted. After the fall of the Roman Empire, its old buried buildings were rediscovered and dug out, hollowed out. Inside these “grottos” people found ancient decadent arts that looked very strange to them. They named them for the type of places in which they had been found. But by one of those wondrous linguistic transformations, what the finders thought about these works of art, namely that they struck them as excessive, extravagant, and weird, came to be attached to name of the location. Grotto-esque, in other words.

A gargoyle that don’t spout water is a kind of decadent gargoyle, folks, and hence belongs with that weird art of the past, the grotesque. Enough said. Let’s look at pictures.

Herewith a genuine gargoyle. It resides on the Mausoleum for Queen Louise-Marie, Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk, in Ostend, Belgium. The source is here.

And here is what I take to be a decorative gargoyle, thus a grotesque, from the roof of Notre Dame de Paris. The source is here.


  1. Great piece!! Thanks for all the info! I had 2 little gargoyles I bought with VERY limited funds in Paris in 1970---the toursity kind. Put them in my family car trunk and they were stolen in front of a police station in Rome. I am still grieving....

  2. Brenna:

    Grieve with you in retrospect. I was once given a commercially manufactured but really lifelike gargoyle--and sure enough it broke by falling off an outer wall in a storm. Have always loved those things...