Last Updated on 20th April 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
Setting the striking two towers and flying buttresses aside, there is perhaps no architectural feature quite as synonymous with Notre Dame Cathedral, in the heart of Île de la Cité in Paris as those of the gargoyles. Some statues even seem to be in a ‘sighing’ pose, while others are simply grotesque (i.e. they’re not actually gargoyles, but rather chimerae- read on for more info!). Here’s a quick history of the gargoyles of Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral!
The mysteries of Île de la Cité
Located in the very heart of what was once Lutetia, i.e. where the Romans established the settlement which would one day become the Paris we all know today, the Notre Dame Cathedral has stood in pride of place for well over eight centuries and was one of the first great Gothic Stone Cathedrals of the Middle Ages.
Nearby, there are many other establishments which were created during the Middle Ages. For example, the Crown of Thorns relic (which was actually in Notre Dame until the fire in April 2019) was actually originally housed within the walls of Saint Chapelle.
A staggering feat of Medieval engineering, the sumptuous Sainte Chapelle features literal walls of glass depicting biblical scenes. Elsewhere on Île de la Cité (one of only two natural Seine River Islands which remain to this day), Hôtel Dieu is the oldest hospital in Paris and is alleged to have been in operation in some form or another since the 7th-century!
But… Gargoyle or Chimera… or Grotesque?
Those with a particular penchant for architectural terms would be remiss to inform you that there are actually two different kinds of statues crowning atop the roof of Notre Dame. You see, whereas a gargoyle, in the strictest sense of the word, is a statue which spouts out water, a Chimera (also referred to as a Grotesque) is a statue which is formed of various monstrous body parts but is there purely for decorative purposes.
In mythology, a Chimera is a fantastical beast which is grotesque in its appearance. During the Middle Ages, the term ‘babewyn’ was used to refer to both gargoyles and chimerae, which has perhaps aided in the confusion of the two terms ever since. Another type of statue is that of the wyvern, a two footed dragon, though we won’t get further into that here!
The term ‘gargoyle’ likely derives from the French word ‘gargouille,’ which could loosely be translated to mean ‘throat’ or ‘gullet’ and refers to the fact that these stone fixtures were used to divert water away from the roof of the cathedral as far away as possible so as to limit water damage. Last but not least, and perhaps most confusingly of all, the term ‘Grotesque’ can be used to describe both Gargoyles and Chimera.
When were the gargoyles of Notre Dame added?
There have likely been gargoyles (the spouting water type) on Notre Dame since 1240, when they would have been simple carved heads and ever-so-useful in the climate of the city, which is obviously no stranger to rain (particularly during the colder months of the year).
Over the years, the gargoyles would have been particularly prone to erosion (much of the stone which makes up Notre Dame Cathedral is the type of Parisian limestone which was the original reason the Catacombs of Paris were created- i.e. to serve as quarries) from rainwater. Whatever medieval gargoyles which would have still existed by the 18th-century would likely have been destroyed during the French Revolution.
What many people don’t know, is that many of the most iconic features of the cathedral we all know today are actually later additions… This is to the extent that those who were present at the groundbreaking and initial decades of the ecclesiastical building’s construction would likely not even recognise the Notre Dame of today.
It’s little known, but when Victor Hugo wrote ‘the Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ Notre Dame was crumbling and in great disrepair. So much so, that in the early 1800s, when Victor Hugo was living in Paris, the cathedral was half-falling down. Victor Hugo loved the cathedral. Worried about its state, and the lack of public pressure to save Notre Dame, in 1831, Hugo published The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
But what is perhaps most telling about his true intention for the novel, that it might reignite Parisian, French, and worldwide interest in the Cathedral, is that he actually named the book Notre Dame de Paris.
In it, there are several chapters solely dedicated to the architecture of Notre Dame, telling of in itself.
Well, the book about Paris and subsequent spin-off tales and myths worked better than Hugo could perhaps ever have imagined. In 1841, the State commissioned Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus to restore Notre Dame. In the following decades, a new organ was added, the spire replaced, many of the grotesques and gargoyles were added, and countless other features of the building that are so synonymous with the modern day Notre Dame.
The 19th-century gargoyles and chimera of Notre Dame
Prior to the fire of Notre Dame in April 2019 (sadly little is known about the exact fate of many of the public’s favourite gargoyles and chimerae), hundreds of grotesques adorned the rooftop of Notre Dame. These were largely installed under the instruction of Viollet-le-Duc (who also set about transforming Mont Saint Michel into the gothic grandeur we all know today).
The French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc oversaw a mid 19th-century refurbishment of the Cathedral over a period of 25 years and wanted to emanate medieval architecture. This is when the great spire was added, as well as some of the most dramatic grotesques. In the fashion of many medieval builders from times gone by, it’s said that Viollet-le-Duc himself added a Grotesque in his image to the roof of Notre Dame.
Stryge, the ‘spitting Gargoyle’ of Notre Dame de Paris
The most famous of the ‘gargoyles of Paris’ is not indeed a gargoyle at all, but instead a Chimera, owing to the fact that it doesn’t aid in draining water from the roof of the cathedral and is instead there for purely decorative purposes.
Stryge is so famous thanks to the fact that the stone carving seems to be ‘sighing,’ and bored, as if caught in mid-pose. Often mistakenly referred to as the ‘spitting gargoyle of Notre Dame’ (this statue does not drain water and therefore cannot officially be a gargoyle), the statue was probably the most photographed of all the Grotesques and is also known as the strix.
Henri Le Secq near the ‘Stryge’ chimera, 1853 via Wikimedia