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 Ancient Egyptian architecture, gargoyles showed little variation, typically in the form of a lion’s head. Similar lion-mouthed water spouts were also seen on Greek temples, carved or modeled in the marble or terracotta cymatium of the cornice. An excellent example of this are the 39 remaining lion-headed water spouts on the Temple of Zeus. There were originally 102 gargoyles or spouts, but due to the heavy weight (they were crafted from marble), many have snapped off and had to be replaced.
Many medieval cathedrals included gargoyles and chimeras. The most famous examples are those of Notre Dame de Paris. 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 bought drainpipes to carry the water from the guttering roof to the ground and only very few buildings using gargoyles were constructed. This was because some people found them frightening, and sometimes heavy ones fell off, causing damage. In 1724, the London Building Act passed by the Parliament of Great Britain made the use of downpipes compulsory on all new construction.
A French legend that sprang up around the name of St. Romanus (“Romain”) (AD 631–641), the former chancellor of the Merovingian king Clotaire IIwho was made bishop of Rouen, relates how he delivered the country around Rouen from a monster called Gargouille or Goji. La Gargouille is said to have been the typical dragon with batlike wings, a long neck, and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth. There are multiple versions of the story, either that St. Romanus subdued the creature with a crucifix, or he captured the creature with the help of the only volunteer, a condemned man. In each, the monster is led back to Rouen and burned, but its head and neck would not burn due to being tempered by its own fire breath. The head was then mounted on the walls of the newly built church to scare off evil spirits, and 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 atRouen).
Gargoyles were viewed in two ways by the church throughout history. The primary use was to convey the concept of evil through the form of the gargoyle, which was especially useful in sending a stark message to the common people, most of whom were illiterate. Gargoyles also are said to scare evil spirits away from the church, this reassured congregants that evil was kept outside of the church’s walls. However, some medieval clergy viewed gargoyles as a form of idolatry. In the 12th century St. Bernard of Clairvaux was famous for speaking out against gargoyles:
What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent’s head, there a fish with a quadruped’s head, then again an animal half horse, half goat… Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.
According to Lester Burbank Bridaham, writing in Gargoylaes, Chimeres and the Grotesque in French Gothic Sculpture, “There is much symbolism in the sculpture of [the Gothic] period; but we must be wary of reading in too much meaning.”