Traditional design and construction of our stately and ecclesiastical buildings in Australia and New Zealand often stems from our European past. With this comes the striking and diverse ornamentation that adorns so many of our older buildings in the major capital cities.

The idea behind the title of this article stems from an age where the vast majority of people walking down the street are engrossed in their personal devices, whether it is for work, business or pleasure. If only they directed their gaze to the upper levels of our older buildings, what a visual feast they would enjoy.

The old French ‘gargouille’ meant ‘throat’; the Low Latin ‘gargula’ is a gullet and in English we have the very expressive‘gargle’. A gargoyle, then, is simply an architectural throat. The essential part is not its grotesque carving as is sometimessupposed, but its capacity to act as a throat, that is, to carry rain-water away from the roof gutters of a building. Utility is its first purpose; decoration comes second.

If we were asked “When is a gargoyle not a gargoyle?” our answer would be:
“When no water runs out of it”.

In the Middle Ages, churches used gargoyles as a reminder that the devil lurks outside, contrasting with the cathedral’s interior, where redemption takes place. This was a form of marketing to an illiterate public among whom superstitions were common. Stonemasons had free choice as to what their gargoyles should depict or who they should resemble. It is an interesting fact that no two gargoyles are exactly the same.

Since ancient times, people have been adorning buildings with statues and symbols. The Egyptians and Greeks, for example, depicted their own deities. The mythical creatures on buildings are often a chimera, (which is a lion, serpent, goat combination) or a gryphon, which is a lion body and head with the wings of an eagle.

Dragons were used to symbolise the devil or demons, and became popular in Edwardian architecture as a decorative element. They remain popular as a made-to-order stylish roof feature.
Gargoyles, grotesques and masks have continued through history simply for decorative purposes.

Next time you are visiting Adelaide,Auckland, Melbourne or Sydney, cast your eyes upwards and explore for yourself the carvings of the past.

  • References
  • Gargoyles of Melbourne, Quaint and
    Curious Carvings By John Russell Parry