What is a Gargoyle? Guardians of Architecture and Symbolism

A gargoyle is an architectural element that has been used since the Middle Ages. It is carved or formed grotesquely with a spout designed to convey water from a roof and away from the sides of a building. In addition to the practical function of projecting water away from a building, gargoyles were also intended to symbolize ‘guardianship’ of the building and to ward off evil spirits. Their open mouths were symbolic of them devouring giants.

Gargoyles are often made of granite and can be found in Gothic architecture. They come in many shapes and sizes, so you can find one that fits your style. You can even find gargoyle statues for sale online!

In summary, gargoyles are decorative sculptures used in architecture with both practical and symbolic purposes. They are meant to protect buildings from water damage as well as ward off evil spirits.

  • Gargoyles have been used since the Middle Ages
  • They are carved or formed grotesque figures with spouts designed to convey water away from buildings
  • Gargoyles symbolize ‘guardianship’ of the building and ward off evil spirits
  • Their open mouths symbolize their devouring giants
  • Gargoyles are often made of granite and can be found in Gothic architecture


Gargoyles have been around for centuries, originally used as a practical way to project water away from buildings. However, they have also become associated with warding away evil spirits and symbolising guardianship of buildings. In this article, I will look into the history of gargoyles and explore their symbolism.

What is a Gargoyle?

Gargoyles are decorative spouts that project from the corners or eaves of buildings. They are usually found on churches and sometimes on cathedrals, but sometimes can be seen on castles, houses, temples, and other structures. They often have a demonic or grotesque face, with horns, wings, and open mouths which symbolize their terrifying nature as they look down upon passers-by.

In addition to the practical function of projecting water away from a building, gargoyles were also intended to symbolize ‘guardianship’ of the building and to ward off evil spirits. Their open mouths were symbolic of them devouring giants – thought in medieval times to be monsters able to cause great destruction.

Today the function of gargoyles has been somewhat forgotten, however, they remain a popular fixture on public buildings as decoration or artworks, appreciated for their craftsmanship by those who look up at them in awe. Gargoyles may take a variety of forms; some are humorous sculptures or engage in playful activities such as surfing or playing instruments. Others may be intricately detailed sculptures representing an animal species such as a lion or an owl. No matter what form it takes though there is one thing that remains true; these grotesque figures will always keep their watchful gaze over their home no matter what!

Historical Context

Gargoyles have a long and storied history, with references made to them in ancient mythology, art, and literature. The symbolism of the gargoyle is rooted in the belief that the figure can protect a building from evil spirits, as well as reminding us of the stories of giants being vanquished. By understanding the background of these fascinating figures, we can gain a greater appreciation for them.

Origins of Gargoyles

Gargoyles have a long and varied history, beginning in the Middle Ages when stone carvers of the time started to use these creatures as fun, often humorous, decorative designs for buildings. In many cases, these grotesque figures served a practical purpose: water spouts were typically fashioned in their mouths or beneath them and when it rained, water would pour down over their bodies and away from doorways into drains. This kept the buildings dry and gave the gargoyles a sense of utility within the community.

In addition to their utilitarian purposes, they were also symbols of ‘guardianship’ to ward off evil spirits. According to medieval art historian Madeleine Pelner Cosman (1921–2008), they were believed to be capable of attacking giants that threatened communities. They were intended to look fearsome with open mouths as a warning against potential evil-doers with intimidating features designed to drive off danger in all its forms.

The origin of where this superstition originated is still largely debated by art historians today—some believe it sprung from an ancient Egyptian custom involving guardian statues set up around the dead while others associate this fear with Celtic folklore such as those believed to have been told by sixth-century Irish monk Saint Columbanus (543–615). Over time, gargoyles appeared in more elaborate shapes and sizes, often becoming more imaginative as sculptures experimented with different styles. Whatever their origin might have been—theory or practicality—their presence on medieval European architecture still manages to fascinate us today because of its unique combination of history and design.

Evolution of Gargoyles

Gargoyles, or ‘chimarae’, as they are known in contemporary art and literature, have evolved over the centuries from architectural decoration to become one of the most iconic imagery in popular culture.

The historical precedent for gargoyles began in 12th-century Europe. Medieval churches were ornately carved and decorated with demonic-looking statues including dragons, demons, birds, and beasts that were said to ward off evil forces and protect the dwellings from destruction. Initially used solely for decoration, their prominent position made them symbols of power.

Over time, gargoyles gained greater scientific significance amongst artists who believed them to have supernatural properties. They became thought of as not just mere decorations but rather portentous items which could be invoked to bring luck or ward off misfortune. As such gargoyles soon became a regular feature on many buildings and chimney tops all over Europe as people sought to protect their homes from exactly this kind of evil force.

With the onset of the Renaissance period of art and culture during the 15th-century gargoyle, sculptures began to take on a more abstract quality, becoming symbolic representations of religious figures or social issues such as poverty, greed, or hate – reflections on man’s inner nature for example, beasts that destroyed villages or guarded castles! France was particularly famous for its beautiful stone-carved chimaeres ornate designs incorporating animals combined with human features on every building type from grand cathedrals and churches down to water wells throughout Europe which still stand today as symbols of architectural mastery across our cities.

It is evident that there has been a continuous evolution regarding our interpretation of what constitutes a gargoyle ranging from being viewed purely as decoration without any underlying meaning right up until its modern iteration where it has become an integral part of popular culture due to its fearsome yet captivating imagery weaving engaging messages through subtle artwork embedded into everyday architecture.

Practical Function

Gargoyles have often been seen as a decorative feature on many different types of buildings. But, what is a gargoyle, and what is the practical function it serves?

A gargoyle is a carved or sculpted stone waterspout that serves the purpose of diverting water away from a building’s walls and foundations. Its main purpose is to protect the structure from corrosion, especially in the case of large and elaborate structures that are particularly susceptible to water damage.

Projecting Water Away from a Building

Gargoyles, traditional architectural fixtures found in many buildings around the world, were first created to project water away from a certain area of the building or structure. This kept it protected from damage due to rain or flooding. They were often used strategically in important areas such as near arched walkways and doorways. Chemically treated carved stone was used to create the gargoyle shape which served as an open channel for water to be pushed away from these special areas.

The placement of gargoyles was also thought to have some magical properties – they created a protective barrier against evil spirits and giant creatures which had often been known to bring down buildings in the olden days. The open mouths of the gargoyles symbolized them ‘devouring’ these giants and preventing them from doing harm.

Gargoyles can be seen all around the world today, providing practical use and a reminder of our mythical past that reminds us that where we live is not just appreciative of aesthetics but also secure by protecting guardians such as these iconic sculptures.

Symbolic Meaning

Let’s look into the history and cultural significance of these mythical creatures.

Guardianship of the Building

Gargoyles were first used in architecture in the 12th century and have since developed an iconic reputation as frightening and mysterious figures. Aside from their fascinating physical appearance, gargoyles often served a dual purpose as functional parts of buildings such as drains, spouts, and gutters.

In addition to the practical function of projecting water away from a building, gargoyles were also intended to symbolize ‘guardianship’ of the building and to ward off evil spirits. Their open mouths were symbolic of them devouring giants, another form of protection for those within the confines of the structure they guarded. As symbols they could be seen as protecting holy institutions and even providing education on morality through their often-grotesque compositions that depicted human suffering or wickedness.

It is believed that one objective behind the gargoyle sculpture was to instill fear into those entering or approaching a building where it was made evident that these mysterious guardians resided. These figures hinted at spiritual protection against danger, but also kept watchful eyes against wandering souls entering unseen realms; with potential trespassers aware that these sculptures had eyes upon them at all times.

Warding off Evil Spirits

In addition to their potential practical use in diverting rainwater from building walls, gargoyles could also be carved with menacing expressions to symbolize ‘guardianship’ of the building. In some cases, artists chose symbols meant to ward off evil spirits which would otherwise cause damage or interfere with prayer or ritual practices held within the building it was housed at.

The open mouths of these figures were also often intended to ‘devour’ giants which would threaten those living around them. This devouring action was seen as a symbolic way of controlling sources of fear or supposed danger while simultaneously acting as an imposing lookout that warned possible intruders not to get too close by reminding them of its power against them. These ideas often support views that saw gargoyles not just as geometrically pleasing sculptures but instead imbued with an almost spiritual presence capable of protecting fellows inhabitants from harm within its proximity or range sight.

Devouring Giants

The traditional view of the gargoyle is that it has an open mouth with a long tongue protruding. This has been interpreted to symbolize the gargoyle as a devourer of giants. In folklore, giants were believed to have been responsible for much damage and destruction, as well as causing misfortune in general. Having a gargoyle with its open mouth is believed to ward off these giants by scaring them away and consuming them if they get too close.

As a result, gargoyles were seen by many to be protectors of buildings and cities, looking out for them and keeping away vengeful spirits or entities.

What is a gargoyle in mythology?

In mythology, a gargoyle is a carved stone figure, often with a twisted or grotesque face or as an animal hybrid, that served as waterspouts from a building’s roof. The term “gargoyle” is derived from the French word “gargouille,” meaning throat, which refers to their original function as waterspouts.

Gargoyles are also referred to as “chimera” in Greek mythology, a creature with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the long tail of a snake.

Here are the key points about gargoyles in mythology:

  • Derived from the French word “gargouille,” meaning throat, referring to their original function as waterspouts.
  • Often depicted as twisted or grotesque faces or animal hybrids.
  • Referred to as “chimera” in Greek mythology, a creature with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a snake.

Which cathedrals have gargoyles?

Gargoyles are a fascinating part of Gothic architecture and can be found adorning many cathedrals around the world. Here are some of the most famous cathedrals with gargoyles:

  • Ulmer Munster, Ulm, Germany. This cathedral is home to over 200 gargoyles and grotesques, making it one of the most impressive examples of Gothic architecture in Europe.
  • Duomo di Milano, Milan. The Duomo di Milano is one of the largest churches in Italy, and its exterior is adorned with numerous gargoyles.
  • National Cathedral, Washington, DC. This iconic cathedral has over 100 gargoyles and grotesques that have been carved into its stone façade.
  • Eastern State Penitentiary, PA. This former prison is now a museum, and its walls are decorated with several unique gargoyles.
  • Merton Chapel College, Oxford. This college chapel features several beautiful gargoyles on its roofline, which were designed by renowned sculptor Henry Moore in the 1930s.
  • Dragon Bridge, Slovenia. This bridge was built in 1901 and features two large dragon-shaped gargoyles at either end of the structure.
  • Chrysler Building, NYC. The Chrysler Building is one of New York City’s most iconic landmarks, and it features several unique gargoyle sculptures on its exterior walls.
  • Westminster Abbey, London. Westminster Abbey is home to some of the oldest surviving medieval gargoyles in England, which date back to 1245 AD!

So if you’re looking for an impressive display of Gothic architecture featuring gargoyles, these cathedrals should definitely be on your list!


Throughout history, gargoyles have been used for a variety of purposes. From being practical water diversion mechanisms to being guardians of the building and symbols of protection from evil spirits, it is clear that gargoyles have a long and varied history.

In this article, we have explored the history of gargoyles, the purpose they have served, and the various meanings they have come to represent over time:

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: What is a Gargoyle?

A1: A gargoyle is a carved stone figure typically found on the roof of a building, designed to direct water away from the walls and foundation. In addition to the practical function of projecting water away from a building, gargoyles were also intended to symbolise ‘guardianship’ of the building and to ward off evil spirits. Their open mouths were symbolic of them devouring giants.

Q2: What is the purpose of a gargoyle?

A2: The primary purpose of a gargoyle is to direct water away from the walls and foundation of a building, preventing water damage. However, they also serve a symbolic purpose, acting as guardians of the building and warding off evil spirits.

Q3: What does the open mouth of a gargoyle symbolize?

A3: The open mouths of gargoyles symbolize them devouring giants.



Samantha is a California-based blogger with a passion for the arts, STEM, and education. With a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts and Computer Science, she explores the intersection of these fields in her engaging and informative blog. Whether attending gallery openings or experimenting with new creative techniques, Samantha is always looking to push the boundaries of what's possible. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and spending time with loved ones.

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