Double-Take-Inducing Gargoyles and Grotesques

Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Aug. 12 2014 1:39 PM

Gizmo and a Guy with Glasses: Double-Take-Inducing Gargoyles and Grotesques

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A goggle-eyed grotesque at St. Peter's Church in Winchcombe, England.

Photo: Hugh Llewelyn/Creative Commons

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What would you call the figure pictured above? "Gargoyle" is probably what popped into your head, but—pedantry alert—that's not quite correct. A gargoyle is a decorative figure that conveys water away from the gutter of a building to prevent it from running down the wall. The water is usually siphoned away from the parapet through the gargoyle's mouth, but occasionally the drain is located at the other end of the alimentary canal:

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The defecating gargoyle at Freiburg Minster in Germany.

Photo: F Delventhal/Creative Commons

When a decorative figure does not contain a spout, it is referred to as a grotesque or a chimera. Often of a demonic nature, grotesques add architectural interest and wield apotropaic magic: that is, they are intended to ward off evil. 

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Over the last few decades, development and restoration programs at Gothic churches around the world have led to the sculpting of more unconventional grotesques. Pop-cultural grotesques and gargoyles, such as the Alien xenomorph at Scotland's Paisley Abbey and the Darth Vader grotesque at the Washington National Cathedral bring modern villainy to old church parapets. Some of the newer grotesques attempt to bridge the religion-science divide: in 1992, when restoration work took place on the 16th-century Cathedral of Salamanca in Spain, project leader Jeronimo Garcia added an astronaut to one of the facades.

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The xenomorph gargoyle at Paisley Abbey in Scotland.

Photo: User:Colin/Creative Commons

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The astronaut grotesque at Salamanca Cathedral in Spain.

Photo: portengaround/Creative Commons

One of the most striking examples of old-versus-new is the Chapel of Bethlehem in France. Built in the late Middle Ages and restored in 1993, the chapel has 28 modern grotesques, including Gizmo from Gremlins and the anime robot Grendizer.

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A punk grotesque at Cirencester Parish Church, England.

Photo: Mark Kent/Creative Commons

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A gas-masked grotesque at the Washington National Cathedral in D.C.

Photo: Tim Evanson/Creative Commons

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Grotesques at St. Albans Cathedral in England. The center face is that of Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991.

Photo: Peter aka anemoneprojectors/Creative Commons

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The Darth Vader grotesque at Washington National Cathedral, D.C.

Photo: Cyraxote/Public Domain