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The Gothic Revival
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Gravely Gorgeous: Gargoyles, Grotesques and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, June 22 to October 6, 2002
Click to enlarge What excuse can there be for these ridiculous monstrosities in the cloister where the monks do their reading, extraordinary things at once beautiful and ugly? . . . a beast with a serpent for its tail, a fish with an animal’s head, and a creature that is horse in front and goat behind, and a second beast with horns and the rear of a horse. . . . One could easily spend the whole day gazing fascinated at these things, one by one, instead of meditating on the law of God.
So asked the twelfth-century Cistercian reformer, Bernard of Clairvaux. Fortunately, his condemnation of gargoyles and grotesques did not halt the carving of the fantastic beasts during his day. By the time of the Renaissance, however, artisans had virtually ceased to carve them. But the horrifying, yet fascinating creatures appealed once again to artists and critics of the nineteenth century who were living through a period of dramatic social and political change. To them, Gothic sculpture celebrated mystery and ambiguity, while embodying the passion and high standards of medieval craftsmanship. Nineteenth-century idealists interpreted the fierce creatures perched on the heights of medieval buildings as stone sentinels, and admired their ability to simultaneously horrify and fascinate. Proponents of the Gothic Revival embraced religious mysticism and cultivated a deep appreciation for the value of craftsmanship. In England, architects appropriated motifs and entire schemes from medieval sources, while in France, the government funded massive efforts to restore the nation’s medieval architectural heritage, which included its prized gargoyles and grotesques.
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