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In architecture, a gargoyle is a carved stone grotesque with a spout designed to convey water from a roof and away from the side of a building

The term originates from the French gargouille, originally "throat" or "gullet"; cf. Latin gurgulio, gula, and similar words derived from the root gar, "to swallow", which represented the gurgling sound of water (e.g., Spanish garganta, "throat"; Spanish gárgola, "gargoyle").

A chimera, or a grotesque figure, is a sculpture that does not work as a waterspout and serves only an ornamental or artistic function. These are also usually called gargoyles in layman's terminology, although the field of architecture usually preserves the distinction between gargoyles (functional waterspouts) and non-waterspout grotesques.

Gargoyles are said to scare off and protect from any evil or harmful spirits.


The term gargoyle is most often applied to medieval work, but throughout all ages some means of water diversion, when not conveyed in gutters, was adopted. In Egyptmarker, gargoyles ejected the water used in the washing of the sacred vessels which seems to have been done on the flat roofs of the temples. In Greek temples, the water from roofs passed through the mouths of lions whose heads were carved or modeled in the marble or terracotta cymatium of the cornice.

A local legend that sprang up around the name of St. Romanus ("Romain") (AD 631–641), the former chancellor of the Merovingian king Clotaire II who was made bishop of Rouen, relates how he delivered the country around Rouenmarker from a monster called Gargouille or Goji, having the creature captured by the only volunteer, a condemned man. The gargoyle's grotesque form was said to scare off evil spirits so they were used for protection. In commemoration of St. Romain the Archbishops of Rouen were granted the right to set a prisoner free on the day that the reliquary of the saint was carried in procession (see details at Rouenmarker).

Many medieval cathedrals included gargoyles and chimeras. The most famous examples are those of Notre Dame de Parismarker. Although most have grotesque features, the term gargoyle has come to include all types of images. Some gargoyles were depicted as monks, or combinations of real animals and people, many of which were humorous. Unusual animal mixtures, or chimeras, did not act as rainspouts and are more properly called grotesques. They serve more as ornamentation, but are now synonymous with gargoyles.

Both ornamented and unornamented water spouts projecting from roofs at parapet level were a common device used to shed rainwater from buildings until the early eighteenth century. From that time, more and more buildings employed downpipes to carry the water from the guttering at roof level to the ground and only very few buildings using gargoyles were constructed. In 1724, the London Building Act passed by the Parliament of Great Britain made the use of downpipes compulsory on all new construction.

Gargoyles and the Church

Gargoyle located in Paris on Notre Dame
Gargoyle located in Paris on Notre Dame

Gargoyles were viewed two ways by the church throughout history. On one hand the gargoyles were used as a representation of evil. It is thought that they were used to scare people into coming to church, reminding them that the end of days is near. It’s also thought to give them some assurance that evil is kept outside of the church’s walls.

On the other hand the medieval clergy viewed gargoyles as a form of idolatry. Animals were viewed as soulless beings in the eyes of the Catholic Church. In the 12th century a church leader named St. Bernard of Clairvaux was famous for speaking out against the various forms of animals and monsters hanging on his church.

The Animals

In the medieval world many creatures had mystical powers attributed to them. Also, human qualities were sometimes ascribed to specific animals - that is, the animals were anthropormorphized. Below is a list of some animals commonly used as gargoyles, and the meanings behind them.


Lions were the most common non-native animal crafted as a gargoyle in the medieval period. In ancient times, the lion was linked to the sun, most likely due to its golden mane bearing similarity to the solar wreath of the sun. During the medieval period lions became the symbol of pride, one of the 7 deadly sins. Cats other than lions were rare among gargoyle carvings because of their dark nature and association with Satanism and Witchcraft.


Dogs were the most common native animal crafted as a gargoyle. Dogs were seen as faithful, loyal, and intelligent, making them excellent guardians.


Although the wolf was a feared creature in medieval times, it was also respected. Wolves ability to live and cooperate as a pack gave rise to the metaphor that a wolf could be a leader of a pack and protect the members. This was linked to priests who would fight of the evil of the Devil for the common folk. The wolf was also linked to the deadly sin of greed.


A powerful bird who was said to be able to slay dragons. Eagles were respected for their ability to see far away objects, and were also said to renew themselves by looking into the sun (accounting for the glint always seen in the eagle’s eye in paintings).


From the story of Adam and Eve, the serpent represents a struggle between good and evil. The serpent was related to the deadly sin ‘envy’. They were also thought to be immortal due to the shedding of their skin. This gave rise to the symbol for immortality being the Ouroboros, a serpent with a tail in its mouth.


The goat had two viewpoints in medieval times. One perspective was that the goat was equated with Christ due to its ability to climb steep slopes and find edible food. On the other side it was seen as a symbol for lust and even linked to Satan.


Monkeys were seen as what happened to humans when nature went awry. They were thought to be stupid creatures, and their intelligence was misrepresented as cunning. The monkey was linked to the deadly sin of ‘sloth’.


Chimeras are merely mixes of different types of animal body parts to create a new creature. Some of the more notiable chimeras are griffins, centaurs, harpies, and mermaids. Chimeras often served as a warning to people who underestimated the devil.

19th and 20th centuries

Monsters, or more precisely chimeras, were used as decoration on 19th and early 20th century buildings in cities such as New Yorkmarker (where the Chrysler Buildingmarker's stainless steel gargoyles are celebrated), and Chicagomarker. Gargoyles can be found on many churches and buildings.

One extensive collection of modern gargoyles can be found in Washington National Cathedralmarker in Washington, DC. The cathedral, begun in 1908, is encrusted with the limestone demons. This collection also includes Darth Vader, a crooked politician, robots and many other modern spins on the ancient tradition. The 20th Century collegiate form of the Gothic Revival produced many modern gargoyles, notably at Princeton Universitymarker, Washington University in St. Louismarker, Duke Universitymarker and the University of Chicagomarker.

In India Gargoyles in the local form of "Yali"s are found. Eg. in the Airavateshwara temple (12th Century) at Darasuram, Tamilnadu.

See also

Photo gallery

Image:Gargoyles-StPartickFlagstaf.jpg|Chimera of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel in Flagstaffmarker, Arizonamarker.Image:Notre_dame_view.JPG|View of a gargoyle on the Notre Dame cathedralmarker in Paris, France.Image:Gargoyle Sacre Coeur.jpg|A gargoyle on the Basilica of the Sacré Cœurmarker, Paris, France, showing the water channel.Image:Himeji Castle gargoyle.jpg|A Japanesemarker gargoyle adorning Himeji Castlemarker.Image:Mausoleum(05).jpg|Gargoyle at the St.-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk, Ostendmarker, Belgiummarker.

Image:StMargaretsChurchGargoyle1.jpg|Gargoyle at St Margaret's Church, Wolstantonmarker, England.Image:ND Amiens - gargouille.JPG|Gargoyle Notre-Dame d'Amiensmarker, France.Image:GargoylesNotreDame-Dijon.jpg|Notre Dame Church in Dijonmarker, France.


  • Guide to Gargoyles and Other Grotesques (2003) Wendy True Gasch, ISBN 0-9745299-0-7
  • The Stone Carvers: Master Craftsmen of the Washington National Cathedral (1999) Marjorie Hunt, ISBN 1-56098-829-0

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