American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone

by Darlene Trew Crist

Published by Clarkson Potter/ Publishers

144 pages, 2001

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Stoney Specters

Reviewed by David Middleton


Reading Darlene Trew Crist's American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone I gained a realization and a knowledge of the difference between a gargoyle and a grotesque. Which may not seem an important matter to many of us but if you want to win one of those bar-side trivia contests then this just might be of consequence. What many of us do not realize is that a gargoyle is more than just a decoration clinging to the corners of a building; they also serve a purpose.

The word gargoyle is derived from the French gargouille, whose Latin root, gargula, means gullet or throat. Gargouille is also connected to the French verb gargariser, "to gargle," which offers a more colorful description of the gargoyle's real mission.

Simply put, a gargoyle is a decorated downspout that directs water away from its building through a drainpipe in its mouth or other orifice.

And indeed there are several illustrative photos of gargoyles in the rain, a vomit of rain water gushing from between bared teeth and over forked tongues. A simple tip: if no water is being regurgitated, most likely what you are looking at is a grotesque.

Grotesques lack the internal pipe of gargoyles, but in some instances do serve a water-carrying function by directing water over their heads... The key difference between a gargoyle and a grotesque is that a grotesque's primary function is decorative; thus, they are found in a greater variety of locations than are gargoyles.

But what makes this information important? Well, it seems that for the last decade some of us have been collecting grotesques when all the time we thought we were collecting gargoyles.

I was a little surprised when some years ago gargoyles started to gain popularity among the secular community. Small reproductions of dragons and imps, demons and green men, their roughhewn features artfully blurred by what the purchaser perceives as centuries watching over medieval battles. But it matters little the affectation of seasons spent crouched in the cold and wet, people love gargoyles no matter what the shape or size or physical wear -- though the more worn-looking are often the most coveted.

American Gargoyles takes a loving and sometimes humorous look at what so fascinates us about the gargoyle and the grotesque. And though sculptures from only nine buildings are represented in the book (Washington National Cathedral, University of Chicago, New York's Woolworth Building and Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, University of Pennsylvania, Chicago's Tribune Tower, Pittsburgh's Calvary United Methodist and First Presbyterian Churches and Princeton University in New Jersey) there is a wide range of styles and literally a menagerie of different creatures -- representing both real and mythical beasts. From the proverbial winged and fanged dragon to a football player carrying a football and just about everything in between, Crist goes into their invention and their history with fascinating facts about why a particular beast was carved for the building or the significance of choosing one animal over the other and in some cases actually getting to talk to the sculptor of a piece.

As the title suggests, we only get around to seeing gargoyles which adorn structures within the confines of the United States and though America does not have as long a history as say, France, Italy or Germany, many of these gargoyles rival those of the oldest European buildings.

Well produced and informative, American Gargoyles is a small but enlightening look at a unique section of America's relatively short but extensive sculptural history. Photographer Robert Llewellyn's shots are topnotch and beautiful representations of the subject. I can only imagine some of the difficulties he must have had getting close enough to snap a picture of the carvings -- climbing onto parapets, or dangling from buttresses. If I were to have a single complaint: the one thing lacking from the photos is mood and menace. We often think of gargoyles as frightening creatures peering out at us from the chiaroscuro, hidden in halflight, sinister heads looming from the shadows, tucked amongst the bats and the cobwebs. But perhaps I project too much of a stereotype onto the subject and Llewellyn's photos are meant to illuminate rather than obscure these stone mascots.

For those not able to get enough of gargoyles and grotesques, Crist has added a brief but helpful guide to recommended reading. A delightful book. | October 2001


David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and all of his friends claim that every grotesque he owns looks just like him.