Images of gargoyles carved from stone cling to medieval castles and cathedrals throughout Europe. They served two purposes. Mouths wide open, the worked like modern gutters, directing rain away from the stone and mortar buildings toward the ground. The name Gargoyle, in fact, is from the old French word for throat. Gargoyles also warned off evil spirits and reminded onlookers of what might await them in hell. Their medieval sculptors are long gone, but Gargoyles still perch outside stone buildings, their features worn by time and rain. Still, a closer look at a Gargoyle, its mouth wide open and teeth bared, sends shivers down the spines of onlookers even today.
Depictions of Gargoyles have been found in the art of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, so their presence in medieval architecture represents a continuation of an old theme.
Gargoyles are guardians, but they don’t always serve their masters. Sculpted to both ward off evil spirits and cast fear in onlookers, Gargoyles occasionally failed to balance their roles. Such was the case at a stone castle in southeastern France, where a lord tasked a stonemason with carving elaborate Gargoyles into his crenelated walls.
The work went well until one storm-thrashed night. The mason had worked late to finish the fearsome teeth of a Gargoyle, working by the intermittent flashes of lightning. The teeth complete, the Gargoyle’s sinister sneer looked almost alive when the storm lit up its face. Terrified, the mason lowered himself quickly to the ground, but when he looked up again, his just-finished sculpture was gone!
The stonemason was never heard from again, and work on the castle ceased. Even today, a frighteningly realistic Gargoyle can be seen in the ruins.