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Gravely Gorgeous: Gargoyles, Grotesques and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination

Grotesque Humor
Click to see full imageBy the end of the Gothic period, the carving of gargoyles grew more elaborate. Human figures appeared alongside fantastic beasts, as lighthearted comic relief more often than as guardians. Humor is a major feature of the Gothic grotesque. Many sculptural series depict characters from the margins of society, not simply as diverting ornamentation, but as characters in a topsy-turvy world on edge. Nineteenth-century Romantics were attracted to the instability and irrationality this carnivalesque atmosphere evoked.

Joseph Trompette’s photographs (left, detail) present a series of grotesques temporarily removed from Reims cathedral during restoration. The exterior of the cathedral at Reims is covered with over three hundred grotesque heads, many of which depict humans. The heads are so lifelike that scholars have asserted that they are portraits of the stone carvers or possibly even representations of psychological states.

Click to enlargeAt Wells, England, a series of capitals in the cathedral depicts a series of amusing grotesqueries: a “mouth puller” (possibly a toothache sufferer) contorts his face, mocking worshippers inside the section of church where the lay congregates worshipped. In another series, vineyard robbers wrestle in humorous, yet violent episodes.
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