Our medieval, gothic cathedrals are often covered in decoration. Kings, priests, and biblical figures are layered around doorways and stand in rows along the facades. The ancient stone masons did their best to make these statues resemble the person they represented. But for other carvings, inside and outside the church, it seems that the stone carvers had a bit of fun.
Gargoyles and Grotesques
Many of the carvings in church architecture consist of gargoyles and grotesques. These two terms are often confused, because they have similarities: They can both take the form of unusual, funny, or scary faces, and they can both be human, animal, or a combination. But it’s really easy to tell the difference.
Gargoyles serve a purpose. They are basically a form of guttering and are designed to keep water away from the building. So, they are usually some kind of elongated figure which extends from the building and has an opening for the water to escape (usually the creature’s mouth). There’s a lovely French legend about the origins of gargoyles – which involves a dragon, of course. You can read this in another article I wrote: A Saint, a Convict, and a Gargoyle go into a Swamp…
Basically, any sculpture which is an exaggerated form of a person or creature, and does not carry water, would be a grotesque. There is an amazing variety of these types of carvings both inside and outside the cathedrals. Unfortunately, they’re often hard to see. They’re usually small and sit high up in those soaring cathedrals. So if you are grotesque hunting, take some binoculars, or zoom in with your camera.
What’s Their Purpose?
While gargoyles have a clearly defined function – to carry water away from the building – the reason for grotesques remains a mystery. Why were so many of these creatures in churches? Some people think they were meant to teach Biblical lessons at a time when many people didn’t read. Others think they were to ward off evil spirits. But in truth, no one knows for sure – the stone masons didn’t leave us any clues, and neither is there any mention of them in church records. Could they have been just for decoration?
In the Middle Ages, it seems that both gargoyles and grotesques were called babewyn from the Italian word babuino, which means baboon. Baboons? Perhaps some of them might resemble baboons, but I tend to think that it might have more to do with the stone masons doing a bit of monkeying around.
The word grotesque came later. At the end of the 15th century, some underground rooms were discovered in Rome. At first they were thought to be caves, and they were decorated with similar fantastical figures. This type of decoration came to be called grottesca – from a grotto. Later those caves were found to be the rooms of Nero’s unfinished palace complex which had been buried over the years. So, our word grotesque is basically – grotto-esque.
The word migrated from the underground rooms of Rome to the walls of our medieval cathedrals, and into our everyday language. Today we use the word grotesque to describe things which are hideous, ugly, disgusting… However, I think the grotesques in churches more amusing than disgusting, so I’m always looking up to see if I can find any of these funny or odd characters.
When I was standing outside the main door of the Chichester Cathedral, I looked up and, instead of seeing grotesques, I saw a couple of familiar faces. Queen Elizabeth II and prince Philip are on each side of the doorway. Obviously, they are not medieval carvings. They were placed there in honour of one of their visits to the city.
And the Queen and Prince aren’t the only modern sculptures on Chichester’s medieval cathedral. On another side you can see the image of a local lawyer-turned-gargoyle with a pipe sticking out of his mouth. While it’s expected for kings and priests to look dignified and realistic, the stone masons felt it was more in keeping with tradition to caricature local lawyer, Clifford Hodgetts.
Most of the cathedrals in the UK were started around the 11th century. So, they are always in need of upkeep and repair. And when some of the gargoyles or grotesques are worn away or damaged beyond repair, they are replaced with new ones. I like the fact that the churches keep with the tradition of the past by having replacements carved that represent our time with a bit of whimsy added.
Seeing these modern carvings in Chichester reminded me of when I was in Salamanca, Spain and saw an astronaut on the side of an ancient cathedral. When the cathedral was being repaired, in 1992 instead of putting up new carvings that looked like the old ones, they decided to keep to the spirit of church carvings. The little astronaut represents something we know and makes us smile. Much like the medieval carvings must have done.
And Chichester and Salamanca aren’t the only cathedrals which have replaced old worn-away grotesques and gargoyles with modern ones…
In Paisley Abbey in Scotland, in the early 1990s they needed to replace their crumbling gargoyles who had been protecting their church from water damage for more than 500 years. One of the masons seems to have drawn his inspiration from the Alien films which were popular at the time.
What was the stone carver thinking when he added this nose-picking sculpture to the 11th century Ely Cathedral? Who knows, but it’s very much in keeping with the often humorous, sometimes rude, carvings of the Middle Ages.
In 2019 Gloucester Cathedral began a project to add some new gargoyles to keep their building safe from water damage. Among them was a miner. Holding his pickaxe and wearing his miner’s helmet, he is calling out to those below. Another is a rugby player clutching his ball. This one reminds me of the Disney version of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Six gargoyles are part of this new plan, and each one represents a different part of the county. Along with the miner and the rugby player, there is a female jockey holding her trophy, a cheese-roller (yes, that’s a thing in this part of the country), a suffragette, and a sheep shearer.
The 15th century Cirencester Parish Church also added three modern grotesques to replace worn-out ones. The three represent ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.’ The representation of speak no evil is a punk rocker with a mohawk, earrings, and a spikey bracelet with his hand covering his mouth.
Interestingly, I’ve just discovered that in this part of the country (Somerset) a certain type of grotesque is called a hunky punk. The term is used for creatures with short legs who are in a squatting position. So I think this punk might just qualify as a hunky punk. I like that name. It makes me smile, and it seems to suit these cheeky carvings.
But replacement carvings on churches aren’t always about having fun… The 11th century Christchurch Priory in Dorset was in the process of replacing six of the worn-away carvings on their church when the pandemic hit. They decided to use one of the stones to honor the heroic efforts of our NHS (National Health Service) during the pandemic. They are represented by this mask-wearing nurse.
The amazing cathedrals and churches that have graced this land for centuries are full of stories. Of course, they reflect the ideas of the people who began their construction, but those who have used them over the years have also added to and updated them with ideas from their own times. I’m glad to see that the same process is continuing today. I hope these wonderful buildings last many more centuries and in years to come people will be studying the gargoyles and grotesques we are adding and understand our times a bit better.
You might like to read more about church architecture:
- A Saint, a Convict, and a Gargoyle go into a Swamp…
- Legend of the Lincoln Imp
- The Mysterious Green Men in Medieval Churches
- The Upside-Down Angels of Bath Abbey
- Bunny With a Bag Inspires Lewis Carroll
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