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Gravely Gorgeous: Gargoyles, Grotesques and the Victorian Imagination
Notre Dame de Paris

In France, the novelist Victor Hugo saw the Middle Ages as an era of great faith. Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), drew attention to Paris’s crumbling cathedral. Hugo set the novel in the Middle Ages, and gave it an elaborate plot centering on the massive structure. In this story, the cathedral was every bit as alive as the human characters. The gargoyles appear throughout, at the climax watching as the novel’s villain dangles from the tower aware of his certain fate: “He looked at the impassive sculptured figures round the tower, suspended, like himself, over the abyss, but without terror for themselves or pity for him. All about him was stone—the grinning monsters before his eyes.”

One reader particularly influenced by the novel was Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the powerful lead architect of the French national preservation initiative, the Commission des monuments historiques. In 1843, he began an elaborate restoration of the endangered cathedral that included a new series of grotesque statues for the galleries surrounding both towers. Those chimères, as he called them, quickly became not only icons of Gothic fantasy, but archetypal gargoyles. In fact, however, they are neither Gothic nor gargoyles, but products of the nineteenth-century imagination. In Greek mythology, the chimera is a creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a dragon’s tail. In Viollet-le-Duc’s scheme, however, a chimera was any imaginary beast that exhibited features drawn from several different animals. The original medieval gargoyles had long since begun to disintegrate and fall to the ground, prompting officials to remove those that remained for safety. Viollet-le-Duc’s new creatures were demons watching over the city of Paris.

Next: Charles Meryon and le Stryge