Gargoyles are Grotesques
All Gargoyles are Grotesques, but not all Grotesques are Gargoyles
Intimidating Art in the Landscape: Series Part VIII
By Mary and Hugh Williamson
Architectural sculptures that portray animals and demons, particularly in and on Gothic structures, are called ‘grotesques.’ If they also serve as a decorative means of handling rainfall – such as gargling water away from the structure – they are known as ‘gargoyles,’ a term from the French word, ‘Gargouille.’ Both are seen on many European cathedrals, including Notre Dame de Paris, and the Duomo di Milano, the Milan Cathedral. They are also seen on this side of the world, prolific on neo-Gothic university buildings, churches and early modern skyscrapers. The Chrysler Building’s architect William Van Alen saw the completion of his New York City Art Deco marvel in 1930, and when viewed from a high floor of the former Mobil Oil Building across the street offers a spectacular close-up of huge, beautifully crafted architectural grotesques that are evocative of Chrysler radiator caps. In another application, the secreted but much-loved Staircase Grotesque in the lobby of the Mediterranean-style Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables is another example of how these creatures fuel our interest and have intrigued us through the years.
They’ve been Scaring Folks for Millennia
Having been around since antiquity, gargoyles found favor in the Romanesque and Gothic periods, as the Catholic Church flourished and cathedrals were built. Why would the church encourage the decorative use of seemingly Satanic images? Perhaps it is because the new converts were accustomed to these scary reminders of what was in store for them if they wavered! Early Rome, after all, was largely pagan. It seems that it is possible that religious symbolism was merged to make the new way palatable. Some believe that the halos seen in ecclesiastical paintings are reflective of the beliefs of sun worshippers. Others will argue that halos instead
represent glorious auras. In any event, the evolution of art objects and depictions of deities and demons are fascinating, open to
discussion and often enjoyed in statuary and fountain accoutrements for your home and garden, big or small.
A Great Fundraiser
The neo-Gothic Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan, completed in 1913 and designed by the legendary Cass Gilbert, boasts
grotesques honoring and portraying mastermind Frank Woolworth along with his architect, engineer and tenants. Those images live on for posterity, with humor and fanciful artistry. What a fundraising idea! There are many designers and carvers available today.
They are Everywhere — Even the National Cathedral
From April through October, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. offers guided tours of the building’s gargoyles and grotesques. A self-guided tour is also available all year long. There are many mystical items to discover, and visual treats in store, especially if you have binoculars! The gargoyles are part of an elaborate water management design, and deserve investigation.
There is even a Darth Vader grotesque that was placed on the Northwest Tower in the 1980s as a culmination of a children’s competition. It is hard to find, but fun to hunt. A hit with the kids, there is even a Darth Vader souvenir available in The Cathedral Store.
And a More Practical Application
Being enlightened as we are in this day and age, we may now see grotesques as fun and festive Art in the Landscape, the hardscape, and as a part of your balcony or patio. Many hidden gardens feature these creatures to surprise, beguile and, of course, to offer protection from evil spirits! If you look, they are abundant and fun to study and to enjoy.