In gothic architecture
a gargoyle is a stone roof spout carved in the form of a grotesque
or fantastic creature designed to convey rain water away from the roof and
exterior wall of a church, castle or other building. In precise terms, chimeras
and grotesques, which do not function as water spouts, are not gargoyles, but certain
forms of gargoyle are sometimes classified as functional grotesques.
The classic gargoyles of gothic architecture are usually winged creatures
resembling dragons or birds, closely related to some of the winged
beasts of heraldry, an
artform born late in the twelfth century. The word comes to us from the Old French gargouille
(literally "throat," akin to Latin gula and Italian gola), hence the
Gothic gargoyles made their first appearance in the waning years of the
twelfth century, but they are a rarity in Sicily, where "Romanesque-Gothic"
churches and castles rarely featured decorative roof spouts. It was the
later introduction of the Catalonian Gothic and Renaissance styles that
saw the arrival of Sicily's first true gargoyles. The one shown on this page
may be seen overlooking Via Alloro at Palermo's Palazzo Abatellis (now
one of several regional art museums in Sicily), which was constructed late
in the fifteenth century, at the tail end of the Middle Ages, and resembles
a castle. The portico of Palermo Cathedral also has gargoyles.
The gargoyles of Palermo Cathedral's
Catalonian Gothic portico actually resemble angels, while
those of Palazzo Abatellis are clearly griffons - very appropriately since
that winged beast figures in the Abatellis coat of arms. Historians have long
debated the irony in incorporating what appear to be mythological or even
demonic figures into the design of churches such as Notre Dame in Paris.
One theory advanced in explanation is that the spirits represented by these
unsightly creatures could defend Christians against the far uglier demons,
evils and sins which might seek to seduce the faithful into Hell. Another
suggests that the gargoyles serve to remind Christians of what awaits the
less devout if their souls indeed end up in the least pleasant of places.
Ugly though they may be, gargoyles are at least interesting. They've
found their way into numerous neo-gothic structures across Europe and in
the Americas, where modernised stainless-steel gargoyles guard the Chrysler
Building, a towering monument to the Art Deco movement.
Gargoyles do not enjoy the exalted place in Sicilian folklore that they
do in north-western Europe, where gothic motifs echo popular legend and
even heraldic symbolism. In Italy the Renaissance ensured a wholly different
spirituality reflected in the construction of giant cupolas, wide naves
and pseudo-classical ornamentation based on a rediscovery of realism. Milan's
giant gothic cathedral, where gargoyles abound outside despite bizarre neo-classical
touches inside, was a prominent exception.
A pure Gothic architectural form might have found a place in Sicily during
the reign of Frederick II, who sanctioned the construction
of Cologne Cathedral despite his running feud with that city's bishop. Alas, this was not to be, but Sicily's few gargoyles
maintain their silent vigil through the centuries.
About the Author: Architect Carlo Trabia has written
for this publication and others.