In architecture, a gargoyle is a carved or formed grotesque with a spout designed to convey water from a roof and away from the side of a building, thereby preventing rainwater from running down masonry walls and eroding the mortar between. Architects often used multiple gargoyles on buildings to divide the flow of rainwater off the roof to minimise the potential damage from a rainstorm. A trough is cut in the back of the gargoyle and rainwater typically exits through the open mouth. Gargoyles are usually an elongated fantastic animal because the length of the gargoyle determines how far water is thrown from the wall.
The term gargoyle is most often applied to medieval work, but throughout all ages some means of water diversion, when not conveyed in gutters, was adopted.
The term originates from the French gargouille, which in English is likely to mean “throat” or is otherwise known as the “gullet”.
When not constructed as a waterspout and only serving an ornamental or artistic function, the correct term for such a sculpture is a chimera. Just as chimeras, gargoyles are said to frighten off and protect those that it guards, such as a church, from any evil or harmful spirits.
Legend of La Gargouille:
A French legend that sprang up around the name of St. Romanus (AD 631–641) who was made bishop of Rouen, relates how he delivered the country around Rouen from a monster called Gargouille or Goji. La Gargouille is said to have been the typical dragon with bat-like wings, a long neck, and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth. There are multiple versions of the story, either that St. Romanus subdued the creature with a crucifix, or he captured the creature with the help of the only volunteer, a condemned man. In each, the monster is led back to Rouen and burned, but its head and neck would not burn due to being tempered by its own fire breath. The head was then mounted on the walls of the newly built church to scare off evil spirits, and used for protection.
Gargoyles and the Catholic Church:
Gargoyles were viewed in two ways by the church throughout history. The primary use was to convey the concept of evil through the form of the gargoyle, which was especially useful in sending a stark message to the common people, most of whom were illiterate. Gargoyles also are said to scare evil spirits away from the church, this reassured congregants that evil was kept outside of the church’s walls. However, some medieval clergy viewed gargoyles as a form of idolatry.
Related: Gargoyles (1972 film)