Notre-Dame: the animals that inspired this famous landmark’s stone gargoyles

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On 16 April, news broke that one of the most famous landmarks in France, Notre-Dame Cathedral, was being engulfed by a huge blaze. In less than 24 hours parts of the 850-year-old’s Gothic structure, including the spire and parts of its original wooden roof, had been destroyed and collapsed. Notre-Dame is home to a number of sculptures including more than 100 gargoyles. But what are these unusual looking, animal-like stone creatures?

What are gargoyles?

Gargoyles are unique works of art however they can often be confused with garish structures, which are called grotesques, or chimeras, which are spouts that do not drain rainwater. As defined by the Collins English dictionary, a gargoyle is a “waterspout carved in the form of a grotesque face, esp on a church”. Whether it’s a gargoyle, a grotesque or a chimera, all often tend to feature animal-like parts.

Why are they used?

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These mythical creatures have long been believed to ward of evil and protect the cathedral from demons. When it comes to protection from the elements however, these gargoyles have quite a significant role to play. By forcing the rainwater which runs down the roofs out and away from the cathedral, it stops the water from running down the stone walls. The moisture from the constant water runoff would cause the stone to deteriorate over time, which is why these decorative water spouts are so essential.

Which animal parts are featured?

The famous stone structures which adorn the outside walls of many ancient buildings and cathedrals could be interpreted as being inspired by a host of different animals. Common animal features include feathered wings, large beaks, sharp claws, pointed ears, goat beards and lion’s heads. One of Notre Dame’s most famous stone grotesques, which is nicknamed Stryga but is also known as “the Spitting Gargoyle”, is a horned creature with his tongue sticking out and his head in his hands [see main image at the top of this post]. A stone heron and an elephant also feature at the Notre Dame overlooking the French capital.

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