Contemplation On Gargoyles, Cathedrals, and Arches of Triumph
|Copyright © 2002 - All rights retained by author|
|Written by: C. W. Booth|
"Gargoyles were built into medieval Christian edifices, such as cathedrals, by their superstitious builders to scare away evil spirits from these halls of worship." Or so read (erroneously) history books many years ago when I studied grade-school history.
At that early time in my life, and later following my salvation, and even now as an aging believer freshly returned from a European vacation, grave doubts about the authenticity of such assertions regarding the alleged superstitious nature of gargoyles bothers me.
As a child I reasoned that such superstitions were almost wholly outside the frame of reference within true Christianity. Using inanimate corporeal stone statuary depicting the invisible living demons and then expecting the actual demons to be fearful of these carvings was illogical to even a young child. Surely a demon can tell the difference between stone and another demon, and, even if he could not, why would a demon be afraid of another demon?
A few days ago, as I sat literally in the shadow of Notre Dameís voluminous gargoyle population, the words of Jesus echoed in my oft-times thick-walled skull, "If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?" (Matthew 12:26). Stone images of Satanís demonic servants cannot cast out the real demons, for this would indeed be a house divided. The skilled builders of Notre Dame along with the architects, planners, and artisans knew this scripture just as they also believed in the invisible spiritual world. It is fair and proper then to conclude that these men knew and believed that stone cuttings had no influence over Satan.
Why did the engineers and talented sculptors put these clearly demonic statues into a house of worship to the living God? A simple explanation comes to mind, consistent with art theory and with Christian theology, and is here offered.
Art theory, applied even to my own preferred art form of photography (painting with a camera), allows that all pieces of art, whether sculpted or painted, tell a story. The story may be one of an actual historical event, or it may be a work designed just to illicit an impression or an emotion. In so doing, it tells a story that connects the eye to the mind to cause us to think of something new or to recall the past.
The entire building of Notre Dame, inside and out, tells tales of spiritual conflict and holy conquest, carefully carved in stone and in painstakingly detailed painted artwork. On the front of the building it is hard to find space that is not given to carved artwork telling the story of Christianity. Gargoyles are themselves exquisitely executed spiritual art in sculpted form. And the art of sculpted gargoyle tells its story to men. In fact, each gargoyle may well tell a unique story that its artisan wished to pass to all men who gazed upon it.
Some gargoyles are sitting quietly pensive just outside the main towers. Perhaps the artisan wanted us to feel the utter hopelessness of the demonís dilemma: he cannot be saved and he can only wait counting the slipping moments until God delivers him to his known destiny of eternal damnation. The artisans wanted us to know and understand that this same fate awaits all unrepentant sinners thus causing us to identify with the gargoyleís somber musings, and to warn us to take the action of repentance that eludes the demon.
Most gargoyles are shown fleeing the church building, in hell-bent flight with terror and animosity carved into their permanent visages. The story that they tell is of being cast out from the presence of God with no hope for future reconciliation to their previous estate as honored angels of God. Again, such art is a most noble and somber warning to mankind not to befall the same fate, and to know that God is victorious over all rebellion.
Finally, the cynical side of my mind asked, "What possible story could these other more terrifying statues tell with mocking etched into their grimaces?" Of these I wonder if the artisans had hoped to scare the passer-by into being swift to enter the church? The passer-by could look up knowing that these dead stone statues, frightening as they are, were but trivial representations of the all-too-real invisible beings who sought to influence every man into leaving God. Such thoughts may have been intended as motivators to urge the passing pedestrian to make a side visit into the open cathedral for a quick prayer.
My favorite gargoyle at Notre Dame, which to me offers a world of cautionary stories, is the one on the south side of the cathedral, tucked away in an obscure corner of the roof line. The stone demon sits oblivious to all going on around it with its neck hung down and its muzzle buried deep in a drain gutter, as if drinking itself silly.
What story was the artisan of the drinking gargoyle attempting to tell?
Was he warning men not to drink themselves into hell?
Was he making a commentary on the low estate of fallen angles, reduced to drinking from the gutter?
Or was he perhaps showing us that even the demons fear the coming torment of hell fire and are trying to prepare for the searing and parching thirst by drinking up in advance, as if this will in some way help?
As I began to realize that gargoyles were intentional warnings to man and a call for human repentance before time removes from us that option, my appreciation for the artists and for these quaint pieces of art has risen dramatically. Each has a story, each has a warning. They were not meant to frighten away demons of hell, they were meant to frighten men away from hell.
Arches of Triumph
When in Rome the modern tourist will find the remains of the Coliseum an imposing construct. Leading away from the Coliseum the main road marches first up, then down, to the ancient city civic center called the Forum. Just at the crest of this main road, standing as the sentinel under which all who wished to enter the heart of Rome 2000 years ago had to walk, is an arch of triumph.
This particular arch, the Arch of Titus, with its prominent position standing between the city center and the Coliseum, has particular religious as well as historical significance. The ancient Romans enjoyed documenting and celebrating their most significant achievements and conquests with large free-standing arches into which friezes and inscriptions were carved to explain the noted events.
When one looks carefully at this arch, they will find that the Roman army is shown carrying away the artifacts of the temple of Jerusalem, including the candelabra among other items. The Romans felt defeating the Jewish zealots of Israel was a major historical event and so constructed this arch overlooking their city center, in the shadow of the emperorís palace, and through which so many visitors would be obligated to walk.
As the Christian stands looking past the arch, past the frieze showing the sacking of the temple, it should dawn upon him, Rome the conqueror of Israel, is long gone leaving behind little but rubble to commemorate the vast empire and glory of those days. This is also true of Babylon and the other ancient empires that claimed temporary victory over Israel at one point in history or another.
However, Israel continues. Sadly, the temple is gone, but the nation survives. The language is still spoken and written. Much of the culture remains intact. God is worshipped still via the Law of Moses with all its rituals and feasts, except those that require the temple proper. God proves His presence and demonstrates the validity of His promises with this simple fact, that Israel exists today while her ancient conquerors have crumbled to rubble.
God is not slow concerning His promises. They will be fulfilled. Jesus is returning. The righteous will be resurrected. The world will be judged. But let us consider it His mercy that judgement is delayed and consider how to use that time of mercy wisely.
The arch of triumph overlooking the ruins of ancient Rome are a 2000 year old reminder and a warning that God is not mocked. The ancient gargoyles of Notre Dame are a reminder to all men that time does eventually run out and a judgement will follow. Let us redeem the time, practice discernment, encourage the saints, and deliver the gospel to a lost world -- before time does indeed come to an end and eternity begins.