Gargoyles: a Symbol of France
Gargoyles were important symbols adorning medieval Catholic churches, relating to Satan and original sin, but they were also important architectural features created with a purpose, that of a waterspout. Gargoyles predate Gothic architecture and have risen in popularity recently, although the symbolism has evolved from Catholicism. From their origins, throughout the mass building of cathedrals in Catholic France, to ornamental chimeras today, gargoyles have been important to the symbolism of France. Gargoyles were created for a purpose which is reflected in the word origin. The French originator is gargoille, which translates to throat. It from this French word that gargoyles are named. This is not universal. Although the predominance of gargoyles in medieval gothic architecture influences the English use of gargoyle, the Italian term is also a reflection of the original purpose with doccione o gronda sporgente which means protruding gutter. The German and Dutch words for gargoyle also reflect their architectural purpose with both alluding to water flowing.1 Although today the word gargoyle is used to describe any beastly carving on a building, technically gargoyles are only the figures which were used as water spouts. Chimera is the term for ornamental carvings, thus some of the famous “gargoyles” of Notre Dame are in fact chimera, such as the most famous spitting “gargoyle” of Notre Dame. Originally the term gargoyle applied only to those statues and figures which redirected water away from masonry buildings. Gargoyles were created with the purpose of redirecting water while chimeras were ornamental. The folklore which surrounds the origin of the defining characteristics of gargoyles as hideous half-beasts claims that a dragon by the name La Gargouille lived near the river Seine and caused floods by spouting water and breathed fire.2 A Catholic priest from Rouen exorcised the beast in exchange having a church built. When the dragon was burnt, the head and neck survived the flames and mounted in the city, inspiring the creation of gargoyles.3 While this is not historically correct, as ancient Celts and Egyptians also employed gargoyles in their architecture,4 the folklore does show the strong correlation between Catholicism and France in relation to the gargoyle.
The Catholic Church was a major factor in France during the Middle Ages. Gothic architecture became a way to build the community while also enforcing the impact of the church. Because of the addition of flying buttresses, a signature of Gothic architecture, cathedrals could be built bigger emphasizing the importance of the church.5 As Kings and bishops were embattled to build bigger and more elaborate cathedrals in order to secure the most social power, monuments such as Notre Dame were created.6
The strength of the church can been seen in the gargoyles and chimeras decorating the edifice. The symbolic purpose of gargoyles was to frighten. They were there to remind the community that “the devil and original sin exist.”7 Because the gargoyles were able to be viewed throughout the community, they served to remind members that their actions have consequences and that evil is a reality. They were a constant reminder that Satan was ever present and a threat.8
The most famous gargoyles are the ones on the edifice of Notre Dame de Paris.9 And of those, the most famous chimera is known as the spitting gargoyle. The horned, winged demon who gazes over Paris from the left buttress on the front of the north tower, his hands resting pensively on his chin, his tongue protruding.”10 Made famous because the architect Viollet-le-Duc installed them during the restoration of Notre Dame from 1843 to 1864,11 they are as dominant on the Paris skyline as the Eiffel Tower.12 Viollet-le-Duc insisted on gargoyles and chimeras artistic,13 and they were crucial to his vision of the restoration project and the final façade of the...
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