The word gargoyle comes from the old French word gargouille, which means throat; it has its roots in the Greek, gargarizein, to gargle. A gargoyle then, clearly refers to the type of sculpture that was used to carry water away from a building, an ornamental waterspout whose job is to keep rainwater from running down the sides of a building. Architects would use multiple gargoyles, placed strategically around the building, to minimize the flow of water on the masonry and minimize damage to the mortar and stonework. Although originally the term applied only to waterspouts, today it has become synonomous with grotesque, an architectural term which refers to any anthropomorphic or zoomorphic sculpture adorning the outside of a building.
Like gargoyles, grotesques are sculptural building ornaments which often, but not always, serve a distinct function. Grotesques can serve as corbels, capitals and the like. A grotesque can be human, animal, a combination thereof, or a completly fantastic creature. If a grotesque is a compination of different animals, then it is called a chimaera, after the ancient Greek monster which had a lion's head, the body of goat and a serpent's tail. When referring to grotesques, though, chimaera are not limited to that combination of creatures. A griffon, with it's combination of eagle and lion would also be considered a chimaera.
In the mid eighteenth century, an architectural movement arose in England which utilised the decorative aspects of Medaeval Gothic architecture, including including decorative patterns, finials, scalloping, lancet windows, and of course, gargoyles and grotesques. This Gothic Revival architecture, also known as Neo Gothic or Victorian Gothic, caught on and during the nineteenth century became very popular throughout, not only England, but Europe, Australia, the Americas and Africa. The spread of the Gothic Revival also parralelled an interest in medaevalism and nationalism, as well as leading into the Romantic movement.
A generation of architects, headed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, created new structures based on the precepts of Gothic architecture. The American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, called Pugin’s designs for the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, “gravely gorgeous,” a fitting oxymoron for a movement so concerned with contrasts.
-Gravely Gorgeous: Gargoyles, Grotesques and the Nineteenth Century Imagination
Cornell University Library, 2002
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