“If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out”

Up until today, I always looked at gargoyles as either funny demons forced to shoot out of cathedral walls out of the sanctity within, convenient guttering or the simple-minded superstition of medieval folk. Then I read G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”. Therein he famously wrote:

The following propositions have been urged: First, that some faith in our life is required even to improve it; second, that some dissatisfaction with things as they are is necessary even in order to be satisfied; third, that to have this necessary content and necessary discontent it is not sufficient to have the obvious equilibrium of the Stoic. For mere resignation has neither the gigantic levity of pleasure nor the superb intolerance of pain. There is a vital objection to the advice merely to grin and bear it. The objection is that if you merely bear it, you do not grin. Greek heroes do not grin: but gargoyles do—because they are Christian. And when a Christian is pleased, he is (in the most exact sense) frightfully pleased; his pleasure is frightful. Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs) objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” [Luke 19:40] Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus the facades of the mediaeval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out. (Orthodoxy, VII)

There must be a gargoyle hanging over our head every time we keep quiet against our conscience. If that should be the case, rest assured there is no water pouring out of its jaws, but the filthy drainage of our own unworthiness.

There are times when I think medieval art to be more than bits of (twisted) theology serving some earthly purpose (inspiring lay humility in respect to clerical authority; promoting comital, diocesan or abbatial glorification, etc). I’ve come to realize that there might be a vision set in stone, a deep metaphysics that -and this is the curious aspect of it – didn’t even present itself as such to the artist. Let us wonder, hold our peace for an instant and then echo the bellows.

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