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What Purpose Do Gargoyles Serve on a Church?

Gargoyles were introduced into Gothic architecture around the beginning of the 13th century, and were used on the upper parts of buildings -- usually churches, cathedrals, and castles -- to channel water away from masonry walls and foundations. In medieval times, the grotesque shapes of gargoyles were used to demonstrate the concept of evil, perhaps urging people to attend church more frequently -- or else. Congregants also believed that gargoyles kept evil away from the church by scaring away wicked spirits. After the installation of drain pipes in the 16th century, gargoyles became merely ornamental. These purely ornamental creatures are known as "grotesques."

Gutter language, Gothic style:

  • The word “gargoyle” comes from the Latin gurgulio and the French garguille, which means "gullet" or "throat." In Italian, a gargoyle is called a doccione, meaning "protruding gutter."

  • The original gargoyles on Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris were removed during the French Revolution. Fanatics ripped them off and destroyed them. In the 1830s, an architect restored the gargoyles, but the new renditions looked nothing like the originals.

  • Stone masons had free rein when creating gargoyles. It’s thought that no two gargoyles are exactly the same.

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