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March 2016

Great Gargoyles and Grotesques!

Today we certainly have no shortage of entertainments. Many of us now have online access to films, whether you are into comedy, horror or drama. But 700 years ago opportunities were very limited. One of the few sources of entertainment might be your local church, where you could listen to stories of hellfire and damnation while looking at the gargoyles and grotesques for illustration. The talk by John Putley to the March gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society was both entertaining and interesting. John, from the Gloucestershire Archive, is one of only two people in the country making a study of these often seen but little understood stone creatures.

A gargoyle (derived from the latin gar meaning throat) is simply a decorated water spout, which directs rain water out from the walls to prevent water and frost damage. A grotesque is a similar decoration that does not have this function, often applied to the end of a beam or corbel.

The history of gargoyles starts, as most things do, with the ancient Greeks, who decorated spouts for rainwater runoff with lions’ heads. The Romans copied the Greeks in this, as in everything, but started using human masks as well as lion heads. The Saxons didn’t really need rainwater spouts as their steep thatched roofs overhung the walls, but they decorated timber beams with animal motifs. The Georgians didn’t use gargoyles in their austere classical architecture, but the Victorians reintroduced many in their Neo-gothic churches and public buildings. The huge explosion of gargoyles in the middle ages began with the Normans and their stone churches and cathedrals. A notable example is Kilpeck church in Herefordshire. Gargoyles reached their zenith in quantity and artistic quality during the 13th and 14th centuries when people were becoming more prosperous and more inclined to express their individuality.

Unfortunately we know very little about the production of gargoyles because they were not deemed important enough to document. No accounts survive that detail the supply of gargoyles so we don’t know who paid for these sometimes seemingly frivolous decorations. Perhaps stonemasons or their apprentices were just having some fun in their spare time. Certainly it is difficult to imagine the church authorities paying for some of the more subversive examples.

The styles of gargoyle vary widely but tend to fall into 3 main groups; Human, Animal, or Angels and Demons. Humans are often depicted playing musical instruments or singing (music being another important medium of entertainment in the Middle Ages). It is thought that some gargoyles were designed to produce sounds from their open mouths when the wind blew in the right direction. Many human gargoyles are humorously bawdy, (gurning and mooning at the vicarage being popular motifs) nicely demonstrating the medieval idea of comedy. On the more horrific side there are vast numbers of angels or demons, often shown in the process of eating people or with people inside them. They illustrate the medieval idea of heaven and hell in the same way as wall paintings, few of which have survived until the present day.

If you want to see some examples and find out more you can visit Gloucestershire Archive online. Just google ‘gargoyles glos’.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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