The Gargoyles of Notre Dame Cathedral in the Heart of Paris
Foreboding Clouds: A Gargoyle Surveys the Paris Landscape
The Worthwhile Climb to the Top
Perched high atop the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral, ornamental stone statues peer over the Paris landscape.
Some laugh, one spits, others look bored, feed on prey, or they grimace. What would they say if they could talk?
Notre Dame: A Beauty to BeholdClick thumbnail to view full-size
Commune With the What-cha-ma-call-its
Stoic, the birds, mythical monsters and hybrid beasts are eerie witnesses to history. However, they are not as old as many people often think.1
The structures were added during the reconstruction of the church in the 1840s.2 So don't blame them for crowning of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte or his predecessors.
Don't cast aspersions on them for being mere spectators as 17,000 French citizens lost their heads during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. They weren't even here yet.
Yet when the Nazis invaded the country during World War II, the gargoyles stood strong, withstanding a four-day German siege on the church.3
Today they tolerate the prying eyes and camera clicks of tourists -- tourists like me -- who ascend the 387 steps to catch an up-close glimpse of these stone marvels.4 Catching a personal glimpse of these silent grotesqueses was one of the highlights of my Paris trip -- and well worth the climb to the top.
There are no elevators here, and you can't see the statues well from the ground. If you are able, you simply must climb!
Gargoyles Are Rain Diversion Devices With Spouts
What's In A Name: Gargoyle, Chimera, or Grotesque?
In my trip up the tower steps, I learned that I had been calling those carved creatures by the wrong name all this time. And you probably have been, too.
The Catholic Church was kind enough to set me straight in their official pamphlet. Correct terminology is as follows:
- Chimera are ornamental-only sculptures. They are the statues often depicted as monsters or mythical beasts such as birds, hybrid creatures, or monsters.
Thus, the statues that are pictured in this article are from the Notre Dame Chimera Gallery, located 150 feet (46 meters) above the Paris streets. Some of the more famous type of chimera:
- Wyvern - a winged, two footed dragon
- Stryga - the most famous Notre Dame chimera, often referred to incorrectly as is the "Spitting Gargoyle." It faces the Eiffel Tower. (See the photo gallery at bottom of page.)
- Gargoyles, on the other hand, are carved drain spouts designed to carry rainwater away from a building to protect the masonry from water damage. They have adorned the cathedral for more than 600 years.5 Ornate carvings of creatures with water coming out of their mouths are examples (see photo, right).
As architectural elements, gargoyles serve a functional purpose, whereas chimeras are merely decorative.
- Grotesques is the generic term for such stone carvings, regardless of whether they carry water.
How would you feel if everyone referred to you by the incorrect name for all of your life? Just sayin'.
History Of the Gargoyle
The term "gargoyle" originates from the French word "gargouille," meaning "throat" or "gullet." Related English words are "gargle" and "gurgle."6 True gargoyles serve the practical purpose of carrying rainwater away from the building, thereby preventing deterioration of the cathedral's masonry.
Gargoyles have been used throughout the ages. In Ancient Egypt, they took the form of a lion's head, almost without exception. They could also be found on Greek temples such as on the Temple of Zeus. Terra cotta water spouts were even found in the ruins of Pompeii.7
In more contemporary times, gargoyles can be found on old buildings in American cities of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, as well as on the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.8
Modern architecture replaced gargoyles with gutter downspouts because gargoyles sometimes fell off buildings from the weight of the stone. The carvings also scared some people. The 1724 London Building Act, for instance, required all newly erected buildings in that country to be equipped with gutters rather than gargoyles.
A Heron Gargoyle Protects His Church
What name will YOU be using for the decorative-only statues on the Notre Dame cathedral?
Chimeras and the Catholic Church
Throughout history grotesques have been viewed in two ways by the Catholic Church whose cathedrals they adorn.9
First, they have been considered guardians of the church, warding away evil and protecting the inhabitants. Especially among illiterate populations that the church sought to convert, the statues were thought to come alive at night. The winged creatures were believed to even fly around the city to protect citizens at night before returning to their stony perches before daylight.
Others in the Catholic Church, particularly medieval clergy, asserted that stone chimeras were a form of idolatry. A famous rant against them was made in the 12th century by St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. ... Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.
So perhaps our love of these eerie beings that still perch upon the Tower of Notre Dame is a blend of both rebellion (against those who would banish them) and fascination with the macabre?
Whatever the reason, their sculptor, Joseph Pyanet, has created a legacy of mythical, magical wonders.10 May they outlast us all.
The Spitting Gargoyle and His Friends Have Such PersonalityClick thumbnail to view full-size
One Traveler's Perspective
There is no entrance fee for the cathedral itself, and the fee to ascend the bell towers is nominal. Its cost is included in the price of a Paris Pass.
We noticed, however, that some Paris Pass tourists were upset to learn that they had to wait in line like everyone else. During peak tourist season, lines can extend to two hours.
My family instead opted to take a half day walking tour of the Île de la Cité (island city) which included a true skip-the-line of the Tower, in addition to a walking tour around the island flower market, several famous bridges, and inside the cathedral.
The biographical anecdotes, architectural and religious explanations, and historical references were well worth the additional cost. I am not affiliated with any tour company -- just a happy tourist sharing my experience.
Whichever option you choose, I hope you can spare the time to visit the towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Elephants Can Be Gargoyles, Too!
A Brief Timeline of the Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame ("Our Lady") is an 850-year old Catholic cathedral which typifies the grand gothic architectural style. It is built in the heart of Paris on the city island in the Seine River.
1163-1345 - The cathedral was built.
1548 - During riots, Huguenots (French Protestants) damaged parts of the cathedral they considered idolatrous.
1558 - Mary Queen of Scots was crowned Queen of France at the cathedral.
1793 - The cathedral was spared from destruction during the French Revolution, having been rededicated as a "Temple of Reason."
1795 - The cathedral was sold to a private citizen who sought to demolish the building for its stone. It was returned to the Catholic Church in 1802.
1804 - Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of France in the cathedral.
1940-1944 - During World War II, Notre Dame square became the center of French resistance against the Nazis. The cathedral withstood the tanks and guns of a four-day German siege.
The View From the Top: The Paris Cityscape
Video of Notre Dame and Its "Gargoyles"
1Encyclopedia Britannica. "Reign of Terror (French history)." Accessed July 6, 2013. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/588360/Reign-of-Terror.
2Center of National Monuments. Towers of Notre-Dame: The Symbol of Medieval Paris. Paris: Center of National Monuments, 2012.
3France And Paris Travel Guide With Tourist Information. "Notre Dame Cathedral In Paris France." Accessed July 6, 2013. http://placesinfrance.com/notre_dame_de_paris.html.
4Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. "The Towers and the Crypt." Accessed July 6, 2013. http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/spip.php?article477.
5Essortment. "The Gargoyles Of Notre Dame." Accessed July 7, 2013.
6Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "Gargoyle." Last modified July 5, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gargoyle.
7Crystalinks Home Page. "Gargoyles and Grotesques." Accessed July 7, 2013. http://www.crystalinks.com/gargoyles.html.
8RoadsideAmerica.com. "Washington, DC - Gargoyles, Washington National Cathedral." Accessed July 7, 2013. http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/16898.
9Dixon, Laurinda S. "A Review Of The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity." NCAW. Accessed July 7, 2013. http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/index.php/autumn10/the-gargoyles-of-notre-dame.
10Home Page for Northstar Gallery. "Historical Base for Gargoyles - Northstar Gallery." Accessed July 7, 2013. http://northstargallery.com/gargoyles/aboutgargoyles.htm.
Questions & Answers
Who are the statues which appear to be kings and queens half way up the Notre Dame cathedral?
Located just below the rose window on the west-facing exterior of the Notre Dame Cathedral is the Gallery of Kings. This is a row of 28 statues portraying the monarchs who ruled over the ancient Kingdom of Judah (its capital was Jerusalem). The monarchs are descendants of Abraham and human ancestors of Mary and Jesus.
While the Notre Dame statues were placed on the church in 1220, the Gallery of Kings was actually installed 1140 to 1250, A.D. on multiple French cathedrals, also including those in Amiens, Reims and Chartres. Note that the number of monarchs varies from 18-56 in these cathedrals depending on the biblical source used, and the Gallery of Kings is only found only on those cathedrals dedicated to Our Lady (Notre Dame). The Gallery of Kings symbolizes Christ’s royal lineage; according to the Bible, Jesus was descendant of Jesse, father of King David.
For centuries, the painted statues quietly blessed the church. However, in 1793, following Marie Antoinette’s beheading during the French Revolution, a mob called for the heads of more royals. The angry crowd mistook the Gallery of Kings for French monarchy and used rope to pull them down from the cathedral exterior. The stone kings were unceremoniously decapitated, and then they disappeared.
What you are actually seeing on the Notre Dame exterior are 19th century replicas. The stone remnants were eventually placed on the streets in 1796 during a clean-up campaign and sold by the government at auction to a building contractor. A strict Catholic, he obeyed church law dictating that any objects or remains removed from a cathedral must be destroyed by burning or burial. Thus, he buried the 21 heads that he had−each measuring about two-and-a-half feet−until they were discovered in 1977 beneath the basement of the French Bank of Foreign Trade in Paris. The heads and other original Notre Dame fragments can be viewed in the Musée de Cluny in Paris.Helpful 2
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