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The Gargoyles of Notre Dame Cathedral in the Heart of Paris

Poised on the Notre Dame Cathedral, a gargoyle looked out over the Paris sky prior to its burning in April 2019.

Poised on the Notre Dame Cathedral, a gargoyle looked out over the Paris sky prior to its burning in April 2019.

A Worthwhile Climb to the Top Prior to the Fire

Perched high atop the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral, ornamental stone statues peered over the Paris landscape. Some laughed, one spat, others looked bored, fed on prey, or grimaced.

Tourists wondered what would they say if they could talk?

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 the 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

Then, in the modern era, they tolerated the prying eyes and camera clicks of tourists—tourists like me—who ascended the 387 steps to catch an up-close glimpse of these stone marvels.4 Catching a personal glimpse of these silent grotesques was one of the highlights of my family's Paris trip—and well worth the climb to the top. Because there were no elevators available, one could not see the statues well from the ground. Thus, you had to climb those stairs to get an up-close view. But oh, was it ever worth it!

The term "gargoyle" is often used incorrectly.  Notice that these gargoyles are actually functional drainspouts. Chimera are pictured in the distance.

The term "gargoyle" is often used incorrectly. Notice that these gargoyles are actually functional drainspouts. Chimera are pictured in the distance.

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. The 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 were from the Notre Dame Chimera Gallery, located 150 feet (46 meters) above the Paris streets. Some of the more famous types of chimera:

  • Wyvern: A winged, two-footed dragon.
  • Stryga: The most famous Notre Dame chimera, often referred to incorrectly as the "Spitting Gargoyle." It faced the Eiffel Tower. (See photo.)
  • Gargoyles: On the other hand, gargoyles are carved drain spouts designed to carry rainwater away from a building to protect the masonry from water damage. They adorned the cathedral for more than 600 years.5 Ornate carvings of creatures with water coming out of their mouths are examples (see photo). As architectural elements, gargoyles serve a functional purpose, whereas chimeras are merely decorative.
  • Grotesques: 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?

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, including 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 the 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—although the heron gargoyle did a good job at scaring away evil spirits, he needed the wire on his neck to keep him pigeon-proof.  Let's hope he made it through the fire.

A heron gargoyle Protects his church—although the heron gargoyle did a good job at scaring away evil spirits, he needed the wire on his neck to keep him pigeon-proof. Let's hope he made it through the fire.

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 perched 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. And with the restoration of the Notre Dame Cathedral, may they rise again to take their rightful places on the rooftop overlooking the city.

Elephants can be gargoyles, too—this guy didn't look all that scary.

Elephants can be gargoyles, too—this guy didn't look all that scary.

A Brief Timeline of the Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame ("Our Lady") is an 850-year-old Catholic cathedral that 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.
  • 2019: During renovation work, a fire began in the attic of the building and quickly spread throughout the iconic cathedral. Much of the cathedral was destroyed, although significant relics were preserved. Over $1 billion has been pledged for the reconstruction of the beloved cathedral.
What a splendid view of the Eiffel Tower and the city below. Worth the climb!

What a splendid view of the Eiffel Tower and the city below. Worth the climb!

Notes and References

1Encyclopedia Britannica. "Reign of Terror (French history)." Accessed July 6, 2013.

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.

4Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. "The Towers and the Crypt." Accessed July 6, 2013.

5Essortment. "The Gargoyles Of Notre Dame." Accessed July 7, 2013.

6Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "Gargoyle." Last modified July 5, 2013.

7Crystalinks Home Page. "Gargoyles and Grotesques." Accessed July 7, 2013. "Washington, DC - Gargoyles, Washington National Cathedral." Accessed July 7, 2013.

9Dixon, Laurinda S. "A Review Of The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity." NCAW. Accessed July 7, 2013.

10Home Page for Northstar Gallery. "Historical Base for Gargoyles - Northstar Gallery." Accessed July 7, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Who are the statues which appear to be kings and queens half way up the Notre Dame cathedral?

Answer: 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.

Question: Did they move the Gargoyles from Notre Dame Church before the fire?

Answer: They were permanently attached to the building's exterior, positioned up high and very heavy. The fire spread quickly. Unfortunately, no, the gargoyles were not moved before the fire. They became part of the rubble. However, with the help of 3-D printing techniques, it is possible to recreate the originals if that is what planners decide to do.

Question: How did the Stryga get its name?

Answer: The Stryga, often called the "Spitting Gargoyle," was arguably Notre Dame's most famous chimera. It was a horned creature with wings that sat with its tongue out and appeared almost bored. The name "Stryga" comes from the Latin word "strix," meaning "screech owl." The word is also associated with evil spirits, witches, hags, and vampires. According to a French Gothic legend, attaching the head and neck of a monstrous, demonic creature to the outside of a church protects the worshippers inside from harm. It also draws a symbolic contrast between the evil world outside the church and the sanctity and safety inside.

© 2013 FlourishAnyway