"What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters under the very eyes of the brothers as they read?....What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these savage lions and monstrous creatures?"- St. Bernard of Clairvaux
It was a fitting question St. Bernard posed in asking how and why these "unclean monkeys" - these gargoyles and grotesques - came to inhabit man's monuments to God and beyond. Look up in the concentric center of town in almost any ancient city today and meet the gaze of these nightmares in the sky. How does one reconcile the anonymous, hallucinatory images - many of which are effectively hidden from view in remote recesses of their edifices - with the sacrosanct mission of the Church and the mathematical precision of Gothic architecture? How did they travel from country to country, erupting like tumors on buildings throughout Europe and, much later, America? They are not to be explained away as mere decorative whimsy.
While no ancient texts exist that explain the meaning of these strange creatures, we do know that artisans as far back as the Bronze Age used the grotesque - in gorgons, griffins and sphinxes, for example - to avert the powers of evil. In fact, the Italian word "grotteschi" - derived from "grotto," Latin for "cave" - was coined during the excavations of underground Roman ruins which 15th-Century archaeologists mistook for ancient caves. The mythical creatures found in the ruins of Nero's "Golden House," for example, are the direct ancestors of those the Transparanoia Brothers have bagged for you enjoyment. Perhaps medieval man felt he could ward off evil forces by presenting an equally powerful array of evil strength. Or do the cathedral carvings sculpturally represent the stony imprisonment of Satan's underlings in the act of besetting the Church?
One telling story related by the Bros., via medieval villagers, concerns a 7th-Century dragon called "La Gargouille," who would ascend from his cave near the river Seine to swallow ships and wreak havoc on nearby towns. To appease him, the villagers of Rouen would sacrifice a convict to La Gargouille every year and hope for the best. One day, a brave priest visiting Rouen offered to subdue the beast if, in exchange, the citizens of the town would build a church in his honor and agree to be baptized. The townsfolk agreed, and the priest was able to leash the dragon and bring him to the center of town to be burned at the stake (perhaps the very same one the fun- loving Rouenians used to dispatch Joan of Arc some years later). Only the dragon's head and neck would not burn, inured as they were to their owner's incendiary breath. It is probably based on this story that the heads and necks of monstrous creatures became popular motifs for medieval rainspouts, which is what is technically meant by the term "gargoyle." The rainspouts spurted more than just rain however; just imagine the daily sewage puked by a gurning gargoyle. A medieval denizen would do well to sidestep these creatures.
But the desire to ward off evil cannot by itself account for the popularity of gargoyles in the Middle Ages. Such unthreatening themes as comely mermaids and studious monks were common, and they could hardly be expected to strike horror in the spawn of Satan. More importantly, a good number of the horrific specimens appear inside the sacred space of the church, which, in terms of deflecting evil, is akin to placing a mousetrap inside a wheel of cheese.
Enter historians TK Sheridan and Ann Ross, who in 1969 published a remarkable theory. The great majority of gargoyles and grotesques in Gothic architecture, they observed, are patterned after pre-Christian deities which may still have exerted a strong thrall over the people of the Middle Ages. As a modern example of the type of situation they described, they cited the abundance of pre-Christian imagery that exists in Christian churches throughout South America. Just as religious ritual there betrays the undeniable influence of the period before the Spanish conquest, so do the grotesques of the Gothic cathedral point to the worship of pagan idols in the medieval House of God.
The influence Sheridan and Ross distinguish in the Gothic iconography of the Middle Ages is that of the Celts, whose empire in the centuries just before the birth of Christ stretched across what is now Western Europe. The gargoyles and grotesques of the Middle Ages, they suggest, are essentially Celtic deities whose stories were passed down through oral folkways and whose likenesses remained talismans of luck and protection. The Church, recognizing the impossibility of completely supplanting such a rich religious tradition, tolerated the images with uncharacteristic tact and forbearance.
A physical comparison of some typical gargoyle imagery with the characters of Celtic worship bears much of this theory out. The preponderance of heads in church grotesques can be traced to the Celts, who severed the heads of their enemies in battle and worshipped the head as a repository of divine power. In particular, the popular image of the head embedded in foliage or with greenery spewing from its mouth harks back to a subject of Celtic worship known as "Jack o' the Green," or "the Green Man," who was thought to promote growth and fertility. Tree worship in general was a Celtic devotion which continued to inspire cults well into the Christian era, much to the discomfort of the Church. The combination of head and tree imagery, which must have been tolerated by religious leaders to appear in so many gargoyles of the day, may well have proved too powerful a pagan image for religious officials to protest.
Other depictions of ancient, pre-Christian gods in the stone carvings of medieval churches include a series of popular horned figures who, for the Celts, embodied fertility, prosperity and prowess in war, and whose antecedents date at least as far back as the horned gods of the classical Roman world. By the Dark Ages, the horned figures had taken on the connotations of the Anti-Christ - their stone faces fashioned into a variety of gruesome attitudes to keep their evil brethren at bay. Certainly there are those biblical literists today who still view Satan as a horned figure engaged in pitched battle for their souls.
Giants, biting creatures and figures with protruding genitals other startling motifs not uncommon to the cathedral edifice. Giants and other ruthless monsters will often be seen devouring men whole, or gripping their heads in fearsome talons - images which signify the need for man's mindfulness of the dark spiritual forces waiting to ensnare him. The biting creatures - who are depicted consuming those very stones supporting their ensconcement high above the ground - are perhaps meant to recall those forces which eat away at the fabric of the church. Gargoyles with grossly exposed genitalia, while signifying fertility, have the alert, aggressive appearance shared by the great number of grotesques with protruding tongues and bulging eyes; all of these are likely to have suggested to the congregation the importance of constant watchfulness against the encroachment of death and destruction.
However we interpret the meaning of the gargoyles and grotesques which inhabit the churches and buildings of the western world, it is quite clear that their significance to the medieval population went well beyond the purely decorative or functional. They were, in effect, the representations in stone of a collective unconscious that transcended generational and national boundaries. Even in the darkest recess at the loftiest height, one can still find oneself face to face with the secret suspicion or innermost fear of medieval men and women. Perhaps because they shared these half-remembered beliefs, the Church elders tolerated this surreal stone terrarium and thus helped preserve its rich, strange heritage to a remarkable degree.
The waning of the Middle Ages brought with it the end of the plague, further discoveries about the natural world, and an erosion of pagan beliefs. As life became more secure, the grotesques became less fearsome, more contemplative and whimsical - some of the more recent faces appearing in this book were probably based on friends of the carvers or, in the case of the uglier ones, overly demanding foremen. Yet hundreds of years after the development of lead drainpipes rendered gargoyles functional anachronisms, stone grotesques were still being sculptured and anchored into the masonry of buildings throughout Europe and the New World. Our spiritual guard dogs were still on the case.
Today, for what seems like the first time, people are looking up and taking notice of these anonymous sentries in the air, asking how and why they began their centuries-old watch. Ironically, the only substantial threat to the denizens of this remarkable stone jungle comes from the very species they were meant to watch over. The fumes we send up into the ether from our cars and smokestacks come back down in acid rains and fogs that eat away at the creatures' limestone visages, converting even the most innocuous expression into a tortured palsy before dissolving it completely. These mysterious chimeras bequeathed to us so many centuries ago by our medieval brethren now stand to be eroded in one.
And who will watch over us then?
This is the last lucid transmission of the Transparanoia Bros. Click here to see what has become of them...