Gargoyles, Grotesques, and the Paradox of Useful(less) Art

Gargoyle at Sacré-Coeur Basilica (taken by author)


Why attach a normal gutter spout on a church when you can have one shaped like a dragon? Many Christians today would answer that question in pragmatic or financial terms. Because a ‘normal gutter spout’ works just as well as a dragon gutter spout, and because a normal gutter spout is cheaper. And not only that, Christians don’t believe in dragons.

And yet as I have been visiting numerous churches around Paris, the gargoyles continue to shock and marvel me (like this relatively tame one pictured here at the Sacre-Coeur Basilica). What were these architects and building committees thinking? Didn’t they understand that there are better things to do than fashion gutter spouts like goats and cheaper things than attaching carvings of fat men with bulging eyes to their church walls?

Before directing these questions toward some conclusions, I should clarify the meaning of gargoyle. As already mentioned, gargoyles (from the French gargouille meaning ‘throat’) are gutter spouts to keep the rain away from buildings. Technically, other carvings that do not function as gutter spouts are not gargoyles but either grotesques or chimeras, although architectural neophytes like me often lump them together under the term gargoyle. Opinions vary on the meaning of the figures used for gargoyles, grotesques and chimeras, whether representing the presence of evil outside the church to a fascination with the world of magic and superstition. Some Christians throughout the history, such as St. Bernard of Clarivoux, declared gargoyles idolatrous.

However gargoyles and grotesques were or are viewed theologically, it is remarkable that church architects and builders dedicated the initiative and resources necessary to transform gutter spouts into scary sculptures. Last week there was some sustained conversation on Transpositions about whether art is useful or useless, with most participants concluding that art should not be useful in a utilitarian way, but in the sense of having a purpose. But what about turning useful things into something beautiful? In other words, whereas I think that many Christians and churches are guilty of using art for merely pragmatic or didactic purposes, I think we are often equally guilty of keeping useful things ugly. A gutter spout, of all things, is a perfect example of where function usually ignores form. But should it be that way?

One conclusion from reflecting on gargoyles, therefore, is that useful things can and should be beautiful too. Gargoyles teach us that function should not be separated from form.

But then there are grotesques, sculptures attached to church buildings that are just there in all their surprising grotesqueness. This helps us see the other side of the coin, that art does not have to be useful. In short, grotesques teach us that form does not have to have a utilitarian function.

I realize that I have not even touched on the theological meaning of gargoyles and grotesques, but for the sake of this post, I am suggesting that these mysterious figures finely represent the paradox of the usefulness and uselessness of art.


  • Wesley Vander Lugt is the former editor of Transpositions. He earned his PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts (ITIA), where his research focused on the dynamic interplay between formation and performance in the theodrama. Currently, he is lead pastor at Warehouse 242 and Adjunct Professor in Christianity and the Arts at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC

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  1. says: Travis

    Aquinas said, ‘an image is said to be beautiful, if it perfectly represents even an ugly thing’ (STh., I q.39 a.8 ad 1).

    San Bernardo (twelfth century) from Apologia ad Guillelmum spoke about ‘monsters of the Church’ in his day thus:

    Moreover, what place is there in the cloisters, where the monks read the Holy Offices, for that ridiculous monstrosity, that strange kind of deformed shape or shaped deformity? What are foul apes doing there? Or ferocious lions? Or monstrous centaurs? Or half-men? Or dappled tigers? Or soldiers in battle? Or hunters with their horns? You can see many bodies beneath a single head and vice versa many heads atop a single body. On the one side you can see a quadruped with a serpent’s tail, and on the other a fish with a quadruped’s head. Here, a beast that looks like a horse with the hindquarters of a goat, there a horned animal with the hindquarters of a horse. In short there is everywhere such a great and strange variety of heterogeneous forms that there is more pleasure to be had in reading the marbles than the codices and in spending the whole day admiring one by one these images rather than meditating on the law of God.

    A little later came Alexander of Hales’ thirteenth century work Summa Halesiana, II, is alluded to by Umberto Eco in his section on ‘Ugliness as a Requirement for Beauty’ (148) and which he prefaces with the title ‘Monstrosity Redeemed’:

    Evil as such is misshapen [. . .]. Nevertheless, since from evil comes good, it is therefore well said that it contributes to good and hence it is said to be beautiful within the order [of things]. Thus it is not called beautiful in an absolute sense, but beautiful within the order; in fact, it would be preferable to say: ‘the order itself is beautiful’. (149)

    Eco summarizes Hales’ point thus:

    the created universe is a whole that is to be appreciated in its entirety, where the contribution of shadows is to make the light shine out all the more, and even that which can be considered ugly in itself appears beautiful within the framework of the general Order. It is this order as a whole that is beautiful, but from this standpoint even monstrosity is redeemed because it contributes to the equilibrium of that order. William of Auvergne said that variety increases the Beauty of the universe, and thus even the things that strike us as unpleasant are necessary to the universal order, including monsters. (148)

    Finally, in his introduction Eco concludes that

    We cannot say whether those who sculpted monsters on the columns or capitals of Romanesque churches considered them to be beautiful, yet we do have a text by St Bernard (who did not consider such portrayals to be either good or useful) in which we learn that the faithful took pleasure in contemplating them (and in any case, in his condemnation of them, St Bernard reveals that their appeal was not lost on him). And at this point, while thanking the heavens for this testimony that comes to us from a source beyond suspicion, we can say that–in the view of a twelfth-century mystic–the portrayal of monsters was beautiful (even though morally censurable). (12)

    1. says: Wes

      Thank you for fascinating quotes from various voices, Travis.

      Re Aquinas, I’m not sure what he means by “perfectly represents.”

      Re San Bernardo, I do think sculptures are worthy of contemplation, but should hardly be put on the level of God’s law.

      Re Hales and Eco, I definitely agree that ugliness helps us appreciate beauty, but if ugliness is a necessary part of the ‘universal order,’ is ugliness then necessary in God and God’s creation?

      Thanks again for the food for thought!

      1. says: Travis

        Re Re Aquinas: I’m not sure what ‘perfectly represents’ means either in his context, but I am guessing something like ‘true likeness’ or accurate depiction. Skill in reproducing the form of such things, real or imagined, that is.

        Re Re San Bernardo: he did not put the sculptures and carvings on par with Scripture; his complaint was that monks were subject to a tempting distraction because ‘there is everywhere such a great and strange variety of heterogeneous forms that there is more pleasure to be had in reading the marbles than the codices and in spending the whole day admiring one by one these images rather than meditating on the law of God’.

        Re Re Hales and Eco: you asked, ‘If ugliness is thought to be a necessary part of the “universal order,” is ugliness then necessary in God and God’s creation?’

        I would first want to know what is meant by ‘necessary’ and by ‘ugliness’ in this discussion. I would respond however that ‘ugliness’ according to general connotations of the word is of course not ‘necessary’ in God (with which I think you would agree), simply because it is not found in him and never could be. To quote John, ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5). But whether ‘ugliness’ is ‘necessary’ in the creation, I don’t know. I would guess that if God has chosen to create the world as he has done, with creatures that may freely depart from his will for them and cause harm instead of health, work evil instead of good, and stain instead of beautify the world around them, then ‘ugliness’ very well may be ‘necessary’ to the world God has made. Just initial thoughts.

  2. says: Dayton Castleman

    “Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs) objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus the facades of the mediaeval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.”

    G.K. Chesterton “Orthodoxy” – The Eternal Revolution

  3. says: Nathanael

    I personal note in affirmation: I am always amazed at how much beauty my wife puts into such utilitarian and transient items as a shopping list. Never is it a plain post-it, with chicken scratched items hastily scrawled. She hands me a little coloured square of paper, with ‘eggs, milk, salt, etc…’ neatly written in another coloured caligraphy ink, decorative little designs drawn along the edges of the paper, and sometime even cartoon pictograms of what we’re getting (although the latter may be due to her doubts about my literacy when I’m hungry). I could sit and write and talk about aesthetics and art all day, and here she is actually making things beautiful.

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