Dragons in Our Midst A Look at Gotham's Gargoyles

New York City has a lot going for it: it's a center for the visual and performing arts, it's a hub of international business, it's a major tourist destination - and it has some of the most fantastic architecture in the country. From Federal Style redbrick row houses in Greenwich Village to the Art Deco splendor of the Chrysler Building, New York has examples of pretty much every major building design trend of the last two centuries. The city also has some architectural features that hearken back even farther. Friezes and relief sculptures curl around pillars and doorways, complicated floral and woodland motifs grace cornices and window ledges, and alongside the ultra-modern glass-and-steel skyscrapers, winged lions, dragons, and mysterious, leafy faces - gargoyles - watch over the street below and add priceless charm to the cityscape.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In Medieval Europe - particularly France - gargoyles were more than simply decorative elements. The stone figures we're familiar with today were originally just plain, utilitarian waterspouts or dripstones affixed to the eaves of Gothic cathedrals and castles to keep rainwater from running down and pooling around foundations, thus weakening the massive structures.

Heavy ornamentation was a hallmark of Gothic architecture, so it was only a matter of time before those plain water-spigots became every bit as decorative as the buildings they served. Taking on the forms of domestic animals, people, and mythical beasts like dragons, griffins, and mischievous demons, many gargoyles incorporated the features of multiple creatures, and most had wings. The term "gargoyle" originally referred to any carved architectural figure, while figures of monsters and distorted faces were called "grotesques." Today - thanks in no small part to movies and media - any carved character, docile or demonic, is usually called a gargoyle.

Along with redirecting rain, Old World stone dragons and imps had another, less practical function; the Middle Ages in Europe was a time rife with superstition - the fall of Rome was still uncomfortably recent, the Christian Church was just beginning to hold sway over the populace, and the largely illiterate, largely impoverished masses held tight to old stories and traditions, among them stories of monsters and woodland spirits - some benevolent and some not - and the practice of hanging amulets or good-luck charms over the doors and windows of their homes.

As the influence of the Church grew across Europe, the gargoyles perched atop the town cathedral eventually came to be viewed as the monstrous protectors of the building itself and the town below. Village children (and maybe some credulous adults) believed that as they slept, the local gargoyles would patrol the town, keeping evil at bay and standing watch until the sun came up, at which point the creatures would wing back to their pedestals, and turn back into stone. Such stories may help explain why gargoyles weren't made to look cute; they were scarecrows - but built to frighten away things much nastier than birds.

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