10 Fearsome Facts about Gargoyles

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

They conjure images of hideous, brooding creatures perched high above the cities and villages of the world. The most terrifying ones look as though they might break from their stone moorings and take flight. But gargoyles, it turns out, are full of surprises. Read on to learn the origin of their name, their very functional purpose, and what makes a gargoyle different from a grotesque.

1. THEY SERVE A PRACTICAL PURPOSE.

Gargoyle
Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images

When gargoyles began appearing on churches throughout Europe in the 13th century, they served as decorative water spouts, engineered to preserve stone walls by diverting the flow of rainwater outward from rooftops. This function, technically speaking, distinguishes gargoyles from other stone beasts like grotesques and bosses, although these days the term encompasses all sorts of decorative creature carvings.

2. THE NAME COMES FROM A DRAGON-SLAYING LEGEND.

The word gargoyle derives from the French gargouille, meaning "throat." This would appear to take its inspiration from the statues' water-siphoning gullets, but in fact the name comes from the French legend of "La Gargouille," a fearsome dragon that terrorized the inhabitants of the town of Rouen. For centuries, according to the story, the dragon swallowed up ships and flooded the town, until around 600 BCE, when a priest named Romanus came along and agreed to vanquish the beast in exchange for the townspeople's conversion to Christianity. Romanus tamed the dragon by making the sign of the cross, then led it into town where it was burned at the stake. The creature’s head, however, wouldn’t burn, so the townspeople cut it off and affixed it to their church. The gargouille’s head became a ward against evil and a warning to other dragons.

3. THEY WERE MEANT TO INSPIRE FEAR IN PARISHIONERS.


Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images

Because most Medieval Europeans were illiterate, the clergy needed visual representations of the horrors of hell to drive people to the sanctuary of the church. Placing gargoyles on the building’s exterior reinforced the idea that evil dwelt outside the church, while salvation dwelt within. "How better to enforce church attendance and docility than by providing a daily reminder of the horrors to come," wrote Gary Varner in his book, Gargoyles, Grotesques and Green Men: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture.

4. THEY ALSO BROUGHT PAGANS TO CHURCH.

Churches would also model gargoyles after the creatures worshipped by pagan tribes, thinking this would make their houses of worship appear more welcoming to them. It was a bit of clever marketing that worked, according to scholar Darlene Trew Crist. "Churches grew in number and influence as the pagan belief system and many of its images were absorbed into Christianity," she wrote in American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone.

5. THEY DATE BACK TO ANCIENT EGYPT.

Although the name gargoyle dates back just a few centuries, the practice of crafting decorative, animal-themed drain spouts reaches back several millennia. The ancient Egyptians had a thing for lions, as did the Romans and the Greeks. The oldest gargoyle-like creation is a 13,000-year-old stone crocodile discovered in Turkey.

6. NOTRE DAME'S GARGOYLES ARE FAIRLY RECENT CREATIONS.

gargoyle of the Notre Dame Cathedral
Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images)

The world’s most famous gargoyles, and the ones that most influenced the popular wings-and-horns image of the creatures, are found on Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Although the cathedral was constructed in the 13th century, the gargoyles were part of an extensive restoration project in the mid 1800s. Conceived by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and sculptor Victor Pyanet, the gargoyles have little in common with Medieval gargoyles, scholars contend, and were intended to represent the time period rather than recreate it.

7. PITTSBURGH IS A HOTBED FOR GARGOYLES.

In the 19th century, the Steel City embraced the Gothic architecture revival that swept across America. Many of its Gothic churches, government buildings, and other edifices remain, along with their iconic gargoyles. All told, Pittsburgh features more than 20 authentic gargoyles, and hundreds of grotesques. Many of them are featured in the city's "Downtown Dragons" tour run by the History and Landmarks Foundation.

8. SOME WERE FASHIONED AFTER BUILDERS AND CHURCH ELDERS.


Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Cologne Cathedral in Germany features a gargoyle fashioned after the church’s longest-serving council member, while at the Cathedrale Saint Jean in Lyon, France you can see a gargoyle modeled after the building’s renovation construction manager, Ahmed Benzizine. Because nothing says "thank you" like a hideous stone creature carved in your likeness.

9. A FRENCH CATHEDRAL SWAPPED ITS GARGOYLES FOR "GREMLINS."

During the restoration of Chapel of Bethlehem back in the early '90s, sculptor Jean-Louis Boistel decided to replace the building’s crumbling gargoyles with a few pop-culture icons. This included Gizmo and a gremlin from the movie Gremlins, an Alien xenomorph, and a robot from the popular anime UFO Robot Grendizer. Many locals were put off by Boistel’s creations, which are technically grotesques, but enough young movie fans got behind the "geek chapel" idea to get it approved.

10. THERE'S A DARTH VADER GARGOYLE IN WASHINGTON D.C.

Back in the '80s, the Washington National Cathedral held a contest for kids to design its newest gargoyle. Coming on the heels of the Star Wars trilogy, of course someone proposed a Darth Vader gargoyle. The cathedral, which had already installed some off-the-wall gargoyles and grotesques during its extensive restoration work, named 13-year-old Christopher Rader's design as one of its winners, and in 1986 put Lord Vader high up on the cathedral’s "dark side" north wall. It can be difficult to spot, but the cathedral offers this handy guide.

Hong Kong's Peculiar Architecture Can Be Explained by Feng Shui

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iStock

Most people are familiar with feng shui—the ancient Chinese art of arranging one's environment to maximize good energy—as it applies to interior design. But you don't need to walk into a building to see feng shui at work in Hong Kong: It's baked into the skyline.

This video from Vox examines how feng shui has shaped the design of Hong Kong's skyscrapers. Some of the most extreme examples are dragon gates: large holes cut out of the center of buildings. The idea is that dragons, which are said to live in the mountains behind the city, will be able to fly through the openings and into the water. If their passage is blocked, bad luck will befall any buildings in their way.

Some superstitious design features are a little more subtle. In the lobby of the HSBC building, the escalators are positioned at a strange angle to fend off the bad energy flowing into the space. When Hong Kong Disneyland hired a feng shui consultant (a real and lucrative job), they were told to shift the entrance 12 degrees to keep chi from flowing out.

But not every architect in Hong Kong takes feng shui into account. The Bank of China Tower is infamous for its sharp angles, which feng shui experts claim damages the positive energy around it. Anything bad that happens to the surrounding businesses is immediately blamed on the tower, and the neighboring HSBC building even installed cranes that are meant to combat any bad luck it radiates.

You can watch the full story below.

[h/t Vox]

8 Historical Buildings That Have Been Relocated

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iStock

Some buildings are designed to last forever—we’re looking at you, Great Pyramid of Giza. Those that aren’t can sometimes be saved through drastic engineering measures and a transatlantic relocation. Here’s a look at eight buildings around the world that have been lifted off their foundations (either in one piece or thousands) and rebuilt in a safer space, ensuring that their legacy lives on.

1. THE TEMPLE OF DENDUR // NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Shinya Suzuki, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Commissioned by the first Roman emperor Caesar Augustus and completed in 10 BCE, the Temple of Dendur—originally in Egypt—was at risk of being flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the subsequent formation of Lake Nasser in the 1960s.

UNESCO established the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia in 1960, and countries worked quickly to save as many artifacts as possible before the lake submerged 2000 square miles of ancient lands. Egypt gave the Temple of Dendur to the United States in 1965 for its participation in the rescue effort, and President Lyndon Johnson awarded it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The small stone temple was dismantled in Egypt, and the 642 pieces were shipped to the U.S. on the SS Concordia Star. Upon arrival in New York, flatbed trucks carried the pieces from the dock to the museum on Fifth Avenue. When the blocks were unpacked, "not all were numbered and some were found to be numbered incorrectly. Section drawings exist—but they are in French," The New York Times reported [PDF]. Still, a team of stonecutters, carvers, masons, and museum curators were able to reassemble the temple in the custom-built Sackler Wing.

2. LONDON BRIDGE // LAKE HAVASU CITY, ARIZONA

London Bridge, Lake Havasu, Arizona
iStock

In the mid-20th century, London Bridge was quite literally falling down: The weight of modern cars was pushing the Georgian-era bridge into the River Thames. To make room for a new bridge, the granite structure was put up for auction in 1968.

The winning bidder was Robert McCulloch, the mastermind behind the resort community of Lake Havasu City, Arizona. He believed the bridge’s reinstallation in the planned development would attract tourists—and he was willing to pay $2.46 million for the British landmark. The bridge was disassembled, each piece of stone masonry was numbered, and the whole thing was sent off on a ship that traversed the Panama Canal on its way to California. From the Port of Long Beach, the bridge’s pieces were trucked to Arizona, where they were rebuilt according to the original plans.

3. COOK’S COTTAGE // MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

Cook's Cottage, Melbourne, Australia
iStock

The great British explorer and naval captain James Cook has a long list of achievements, like being the first European mariner to cross the Antarctic circle and circumnavigating New Zealand, Tonga, and Easter Island. The Yorkshire-born navigator spent time between his adventures at home, reportedly in a small cottage in Great Ayton built by his family. When that house went up for sale in 1933, industrialist Sir Russell Grimwade purchased it for £800 and donated it to the state of Victoria, Australia, in recognition of Cook’s exploration of the continent and to celebrate the centennial of Melbourne.

After the house was taken apart and packed into nearly 300 crates and barrels, it was shipped to Australia aboard the Port Dunedin, along with some of the ivy that once grew up its walls. It was rebuilt in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens, where it stands today. Since then, scholars have determined that there’s no concrete evidence that Cook ever stayed in the house, though members of his family certainly did.

4. BELLE TOUT LIGHTHOUSE // BEACHY HEAD, UK

Belle Tout Lighthouse, Beachy Head, UK
iStock

The original Belle Tout Lighthouse in Beachy Head, England, was deliberately set back 100 feet from the edge of the cliff when it was built in 1832. If the light disappeared from view, approaching ships at sea would know they were in the danger zone. But through the turn of the 20th century, cliff erosion made the lighthouse less effective, and it was decommissioned in 1902. New owners bought it for a private home (and it also served as target practice by Canadian troops stationed on the coast during World War II). The edge of the cliff crept closer and closer.

In 1999, the owners of the lighthouse had to move it back 56 feet. Engineers dug beneath the 900-ton structure to lift it—in one piece—onto four concrete beams, then slid it back on the beams to its current position. It is now a bed-and-breakfast. If erosion continues at the same pace, the lighthouse will have to be moved again in about 30 years.

5. HAMILTON GRANGE // NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Hamilton Grange, New York City
Mike, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Alexander Hamilton reportedly owned only one house in his life, and that was Hamilton Grange in New York City. Located in what was then Manhattan’s uptown countryside (which is now Harlem), the large, airy house sat on 32 acres of land with views of both the Hudson and Harlem rivers. Hamilton’s widow Elizabeth sold the home in 1833, and the city grew up around it.

The house was relocated for the first time in 1889, when the owner, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, moved it 250 feet north to be closer to the church—and to prevent it from being demolished by the construction of 143rd Street, which would have run right through it. The National Park Service (NPS) acquired the Grange in 1962 and, in 2008, decided to move it again. Having deteriorated quite a bit over the decades in that location, the house was in desperate need of a renovation. But since new buildings had sprouted up around it, a full renovation at that site would have been impossible. The NPS settled on moving it a few blocks away to St. Nicholas Park—once part of the original plot of land owned by Hamilton—where it would no longer be crammed between other structures and could be fully restored. The 200-ton house was jacked up, attached by the foundation to steel beams for support, then carefully raised 38 feet up in the air on hydraulic lifts to bypass a porch on another building [PDF]. The Grange was then rolled onto a massive system of dollies on the street that essentially drove the house to its new site.

6. NEWARK LIBERTY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT BUILDING 51 // NEWARK, NEW JERSEY

Newark Liberty International Airport Building 51, New Jersey
Peter Brandt, Library of Congress // No known restrictions on images made by the U.S. government

Newark Liberty International Airport might be one of the worst-ranked airports in the U.S., but that wasn’t always the case. Built in 1935, Building 51 was one of the most luxurious, state-of-the-art passenger terminals in the world—in fact, Amelia Earhart participated in its dedication ceremony. (She kept one of her own planes at the airport, as did Charles Lindbergh.)

But when new terminals were opened from the 1950s through the ’80s, Building 51 was converted into office space. It eventually faced demolition as part of a runway expansion project. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the airport, received permission from the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office to relocate the Art Deco structure. First, the building was sliced into three pieces with concrete-cutting machinery. Then each section was individually hoisted by hydraulic lifts and placed on dollies supported by 1407 truck tires to be rolled about three-quarters of a mile to its new location. It has since been renamed Building One and today holds administrative offices, though some of the building is open to the public, including the Art Deco lobby and an exhibition on the history of the structure.

7. THE ABU SIMBEL TEMPLES // ABU SIMBEL, EGYPT

Abu Simbel temples and the Nile River, Egypt
Dennis Jarvis, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Like the Temple of Dendur, the Abu Simbel temples were put at risk by the Aswan High Dam. Built into the sandstone cliffs along the Nile under the rule of Ramses II in the 13th century B.C.E., there are two temples—a main one with four 66-foot-tall statues of the king surrounding its entrance, and a smaller one dedicated to the goddess Hathor. To avoid having the temples submerged beneath Lake Nasser’s rising waters, preservationists disassembled and moved them to higher ground. Engineers dug down from the top of the cliffs, dismantled the structures by carving them into 20-ton blocks, and moved them piece by piece to the new site, a 200-foot-high artificial hill built atop their original location. Like the Temple of Dendur, this undertaking was part of UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia.

8. ST. BERNARD DE CLAIRVAUX CHURCH // MIAMI, FLORIDA

In the 1920s, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst sent teams across Europe to buy artwork to stock his new castle in San Simeon, California. One of his acquisitions was a 12th-century Spanish cloister, which he had workers dismantle, pack into 11,000 crates, and send on a ship across the ocean to New York.

There, the crates were impounded: Customs agents feared the hay used to pad the crates might be contaminated with hoof-and-mouth disease, and the whole shipment was left in one of Hearst’s warehouses. Eventually the hay was burned, and the pieces of the cloister were declared safe for transportation—but by this time, the stock market had crashed and Hearst had lost all his money. The pieces of the cloister were placed on the auction block in 1952, one year after Hearst’s death, and acquired by two Florida men who rebuilt it in Miami as a tourist attraction. The cloister failed to lure visitors, however, and the owners ended up donating it to a local parish.

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