On Grotesques: Gargoyle and Chimera

Famous gothic or neo-gothic cathedrals feature ornate decoration: in addition to animals, statues and stained glass, there are also “gargoyles” stationed atop parapets and buttresses, peering down on us and surveying the landscape.

Gargoyles of Notre-Dame de Paris; Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Krzysztof Mizera

Gargoyles of Notre-Dame de Paris; Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Krzysztof Mizera

A “gargoyle” is actually a type of a “grotesque” that has a functional purpose: a true gargoyle directs rain water away from the roof and masonry of the structure, carrying the water through a decorated downspout. The word is from the French, meaning “throat” or “gullet”.

A “grotesque” that is not truly a “gargoyle” is actually called a “chimera”, or for the gamers out there, a “boss”. But nowadays we use the term “gargoyle” whether it carries water or not. It may be impish or devilish, fantastic or fierce, animal or supernatural, tortured or torturing, humorous or menacing.

The use of grotesques in architecture is not purely an innovation of the West, or the Church. Rather, various cultures have their own examples. But as it regards the Church, grotesques, apart from any practical function, also deliver a message to the faithful: evil exists, but is unwelcome insideEvil can’t stand to be any closer to God. The church is a sanctuary. 

York Minster; Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Digital Designs

York Minster; Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Digital Designs

Catholics understand that the church building is a “sacred place” that is designated for divine worship (1983 CCL 1214). Every church houses at least one tabernacle within which is contained the Eucharist — the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.

A church is the ordinary place for the celebration of the Mass, which in the Eucharist brings about “our union with the Church in heaven” (Lumen Gentium, 50).

Heaven is literally brought to Earth inside a church, and we are accompanied not just by statues or images, but the company of angels and saints themselves. Eucharistic Prayer IV says that in God’s presence “are countless hosts of Angels,” serving Him “day and night”, gazing upon the glory His face, glorifying “without ceasing” so that “we, too” confess God’s “…name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven…..” Our celebration is not fully understood without acknowledgement that God’s angels and saints join us at every Mass.

The grotesques outside, as well as the saints and angels represented within a church are all human works, for the most part. But if eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, then the heart has at least imagined. At times the imagination glimpses upon Divine Inspiration, setting down by human expression a thing that is True.

20140729_100919_AndroidLikewise, the Catholic home is the sanctuary of the Domestic Church (N.B.: has a priest blessed your home? Invite him over, serve him a meal, and ask him to bless it).

A few years ago, my sister was an art student and took a pottery class where she sculpted a rather peculiar piece. Though not a true gargoyle, it could be called a chimera and is stationed outside our house. It scares the children. It scares me a little, too.

When I look at it, I think that it presents a good expression of Sin.

The face is beautiful, but anonymous. We cannot even be sure whether it is a man or woman. He is Adam. She is Eve. He is me. She is you.

Sin does not care who you are. You are the lowest common denominator to Sin: just another human soul. Depending on your holiness, you might be more or less a prize to Sin, but all that this means is that Sin thinks it gets to twist the lance a little deeper into the Lord’s side; for Sin, understanding is lost to its own hatred.


Sin doesn’t necessarily prickle you with its claws or even alert you to its presence. It can climb on gently, like a trained rider on a willing stead. It lulls us into complacency so that it can easily install itself and get settled before making any announcement. The expression of the face suggests beguilement, a lack of awareness.

Sin shows you its own sight, a jaundiced eye that truly deceives. Sin filters what you hear, whispering dissension and anxiety. This chimera of ours serves as a reminder to set a guard against Sin, and never forget its potential, just like the ancient ones of medieval Europe.

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.