Secrets of Quainton
Getting the Needle

Is This a Gargoyle, or is it Just Grotesque?

Church grotesque

The Monday Photo

This is St Firmin’s church, at North Crawley. There are quite a few carvings on the outside of this church that are fairly similar to the one in the photo, but does that make them gargoyles or grotesques?

A gargoyle is a projecting water spout that throws rainwater clear of the church. It will be just below roof level, it will be a figure or a head of some kind, and it will usually have a lead pipe protruding from its mouth.

A grotesque lives up to its name; it is grotesque. But it doesn’t have a spout.

This example meets the first two requirements, but there’s no lead pipe, and there doesn’t seem to be a hole where one might have been, even though it’s the type known as a mouth puller.

I found it difficult to be sure just from the photo, so I went back to North Crawley for another look. The carving isn’t very high up; it sits on the corner of the nave and I could see it fairly well, but still I was not sure.

There are five other figures like this on the nave, all at the same level. I had a good look at them too and now I’m sure. This is not a gargoyle. None of them are. The four carvings near the top of the tower, now they are gargoyles, though not all of them still have their lead pipe.

But where do these names come from?

You’ve probaly noticed that gargoyle sounds very like gargle, and both words derive from the 15th Century French word gagouille, meaning throat.

Grotesque, though, is a later word. At the turn of the 16th Century, basement rooms from emperor Nero’s palace were excavated.

These cave like rooms had been decorated with imaginative and fantastic human and animal figures, and with symmetrical patterns of foliage and tendrils. Renaissance Europe went wild for these “cave paintings”, or in Italian, pittura grottesca.

This style of decoration became popular, and was called grotesque in much the same way that arabesque or moresque was used to describe Islamic art. But in the end the word became more and more associated with the fantastic and bizarre figures we see on Gothic architecture.

The ones on North Crawley’s church certainly were not known by these names when they were carved in the 11th Century, so what were they known as then?

We think that in the middle ages they were called babewyn; it means baboon. Or in other words, what they are is monkey business.

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