An Easter rendez-vous with the capital’s world-famous “friendly demons”
The meaning: gargouille = gargoyle
The history: Representing animals or imaginary monstrous creatures, gargoyles have always intrigued us with their baffling petrifying looks. Eerie and fascinating, they are believed to date back to the 12th century. Widespread all over Europe, these stone grotesques undertook the important role of illustrating some Biblical parables to the largely illiterate Middle Ages’ crowds.
The function: Curiously, gargoyles were initially created for a practical purpose. Designed to convey rainwater away from the sides of a building so as to prevent it from running down and eroding the church façades, they were used to reduce the potential damage a rainstorm could be causing on buildings. Originating from the French word “gargouille”, the term “gargoyle” most likely represents the gurgling sound of water passing through those water sprouts.
The symbolic significance:
Apart from their technical purpose, the statues were thought to have another, more heavenly mission. Said to scare evil spirits away from churches thanks to their terrifying appearance, gargoyles were seen as the keepers of Good, appointed to reassure the faithful that salvation is to be found inside the places of worship where the Devil could not enter. Legend has it that you could even hear the gargoyles shriek should an evil spirit approach the church walls, be it a visible (witches, wizards and demons) or an invisible one…
The reactions: Paradoxically, there was a time when the poor stone creatures were received with mixed feelings even by the church itself! Seen as a form of idolatry, all these “grotesque, horrific, fantastic creatures with eagles’ beaks and wings” became suddenly unpopular with the medieval clergy. Known as their fervent opponent, St. Bernard of Clairvaux became famous for his 12th-century quote: “What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters?”
The curious fact: Interestingly this was not the end of the “anti-gargoyle movement”! In the late 1700s, architects ostracized gargoyles so much that they had the Notre Dame and other Parisian Gothic buildings stripped of “devils, dragons and other grotesqueries”. Fortunately for us, during the 1800s all ornaments were restored back to their original perches.
Not to be missed: Undeniably, Paris’ most illustrious gargoyles ornate the façade of the Notre Dame cathedral. As in any other Gothic building, here too nothing is due to chance and each sculpture encloses a hidden or esoteric meaning, where gargoyles and chimeras take on certain roles. Here is our short selection of the famed cathedral’s notoriously gothic cast.
“The pensive demon” or the strix is Notre Dame’s best known chimera. Originally combining the features of a woman and a bird, this kind of ancient demon which used to haunt cemeteries now observes the world with nostalgia, as if musing over the time of sorcery and magic to which it once belonged.
Portrayed with a long beard, anxious eyes and mouth wide open, the statue of the Wandering Jew was inspired by a medieval legend. According to the story, on his way to the crucifixion, Jesus met a shoemaker and asked him for help. The man spat in Christ’s face instead. As a punishment, he was condemned to wander endlessly through the world, lonely and hopeless, without ever being able to find rest even after his death…
Cerberus, the three-headed dog, is an underworld creature believed to be guarding the doors of hell. His sickly appearance gives it a disturbing look evoking the time of epidemics, famines, fear and uncertainty Paris has long gone through.
Legend has it that some of these fantastical stone creatures still come to life at night…