Gargoyles in Gothic Architecture: The Guardians of Notre-Dame Cathedral
By Hannah Webster
Notre-Dame Cathedral is located in central Paris, and I’ve had an opportunity to see it several times during family trips to Paris. To me, it’s a beautiful building that reflects the richness of the Gothic architectural tradition in France. Rising on the Ile de la Cité, it symbolizes the strength and durability of the church. In contrast with the majesty and solemnity of the cathedral, the builders added a collection of gargoyles on the rooftops.
These gargoyles are strange-looking figures that keep a watchful eye over Paris. Gargoyles have typically been used by architects as fanciful waterspouts, but the three gargoyles that I chose as examples have no architectural function. They seem to have been added to convey a message to the faithful, although their high location on rooftops makes them difficult to see.
One winged gargoyle looks at Paris with a bored look, his head resting on his chin. Another wingless gargoyle looks expectantly at the city, ready to pounce like an eagle that has identified a prey. The third gargoyle is hungrily devouring a whole rabbit or small dog. In these three examples, we can see the three stages of a gargoyle’s routine: waiting, hunting and feeding. The gargoyles have scary and mean-looking heads that remind me of images of dragons or devils. They have sharp eyes, pointy ears and oversized jaws, similar to a deformed human face. One gargoyle has wings, suggesting that he may be one of the Devil’s fallen angels. Two of them have horns, like the Devil. All three of them have human bodies with powerful hands.
I’m curious about these statues, as they seem so out of character for a church that typically displays Christian imagery. The gargoyles appear Gothic for several reasons:
- They are designed to be grotesque and frightening, as though they had come from another world to haunt humans. Their features suggest a connection with a dark side that we fear and don’t fully understand.
- They are part animal and part human, indicating the duality of mankind. We are part of God’s creation, but we can just as well revert to monstrous behavior if we allow ourselves to be tempted by evil forces.
- These aesthetic (non-functional) gargoyles are most likely 19th century additions, when the Cathedral was heavily restored in the 1840’s. They were likely influenced by the Gothic literary tradition that depicted images of humanized monsters who watched over humans and preyed on the weak. These fantastic and evil creatures have been banished to the rooftops of the Cathedral, allowing them to observe and prey upon the moral decay of the Parisian population.
What is their purpose? Their meaning is unclear: are they designed to ward off evil spirits who might invade the Cathedral (by using friendly spirits to ward off evil spirits)? Are they designed to warn Christians against sin by showing how the Devil and his agents are ready swoop down to capture lost souls? The gargoyles remind us of several Gothic themes, including a parallel world of ghosts that haunt humans and a sense of inevitable decay of the human mind and body. The gargoyles also challenge our understanding of human identity: with their human bodies and faces; were gargoyles originally humans that evolved into monsters, or were they monsters who became humanized to trick humans? Do they have similar personalities to humans with an understanding of good and evil, or are they only interested in the single-minded pursuit of lost souls?
I see parallels between the gargoyles of Notre-Dame Cathedral and the characters in “Morella,” the short story published by Edgar Allan Poe in 1835. The story’s narrator tells us of his marriage to Morella, but he cannot define his attraction, which is not based on love or passion: “my soul, from our first meeting, burned with fires it had never before known — but the fires were not of Eros — and bitter and tormenting to my spirit was the gradual conviction that I could in no manner define their unusual meaning, or regulate their vague intensity” (21). The narrator seems to be possessed by a strange force that he cannot comprehend, as though some spirit (like the gargoyle) was tormenting him.
Morella, the narrator’s wife, is a student of Schelling’s work, in particular “the Principium Individuationis, the notion of that identity which at death is, or is not lost forever” (22). In the story, the transmission of identity happens between mother and child. As Morella dies, her daughter comes to life, although the narrator is reluctant at first to name the child after her mother. If a human identity is not lost forever, can it be reincarnated in a living thing, perhaps even as an anthropomorphic beast? Could the gargoyles be endowed with the identity of fallen Christians (like fallen angels) who must now guard over their former peers? Is their role to find the humans with a weak moral character and to haunt them?
As Morella’s daughter grows older, she resembles her mother more and more. At her baptism, the narrator is impelled to christen her after her mother’s name, hastening his daughter’s death. The narrator asks himself: “What prompted me then to disturb the memory of the buried dead? What demon urged me to breathe that sound, (…)? What fiend spoke from the recesses of my soul (…)?” (25). The narrator speaks of demons and fiends. These are words traditionally associated with the Devil and his agents. Could they be the same type of fiendish spirit as the gargoyles on the rooftops of Notre-Dame Cathedral? We see them observing the lives of humans in the streets of Paris, ready to pounce and to feed on the weak spirits. Poe’s short story suggests that these mysterious and frightening spirits can lead us to take actions that are clearly damaging to our souls and our loved ones. The foundational framework of Gothic literature is the notion that dark spirits (that we can’t see or understand) push us to engage in behaviors that are damaging to our souls. The gargoyles of Notre-Dame are a perfect illustration of this Gothic darkness.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Morella.” Selected Tales, edited by David Van Leer, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, NY, 2008, pp. 21–25.
I do not make a distinction between gargoyles and grotesques in my blog. For the purpose of the blog post, I use the word gargoyle to discuss the characteristic of Gothic architecture to which I refer, specifically the 54 grotesques, stone statues that adorn the upper gallery between Notre-Dame’s two towers.
Some sources do make a distinction between gargoyles and grotesques. Many of the decorative figures, which do not serve a functional role in water drainage, are called “grotesques” or “chimeras.” These statues, often featuring mythical creatures or human-animal hybrids, are primarily intended for ornamental purposes and contribute to the overall atmosphere of the cathedral.
These statues were sculpted by the workshops of the artist Geoffroy-Dechaume and designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. The shapes of some of them are familiar to us: the pelican (symbol of charity), the bear (symbol of strength), the dragon (symbol of power) or Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to the Underworld. To learn more, visit: Friends of Notre Dame de Paris Website or follow their instagram page!