MIDTOWN GARGOYLES AND FIGURATIVE DECORATION
By Ben Goeke
While the title of this web
site -- Medieval New York -- may seem to be a bit of a
contradiction in terms, the connection between New York and gargoyles
is definitely not. Outside of Europe, the buildings of New York
City boast one of the largest collections of gothic-style gargoyles
in the world. Gargoyles are so prevalent in New York that the
plots to major motion pictures and television shows have periodically
incorporated these grotesque stone sculptures into their respective
plots. Remember the half-dog, half-beast gargoyle that broke away
from its perch atop a midtown apartment to chase Rick Moranis
around Manhattan in Ghostbusters. Or, on a more comical note,
the rather lame weekly cartoon on UPN Channel 9 called Gargoyles,
who's plot revolves around crime-fighting gargoyles protecting
the citizens of New York.
Gargoyles originated in thirteenth-century France as a decorative
way to channel water off the roofs of buildings. This original
usage helps explain how gargoyles traditionally came to be perched
high above viewers on the corners of buildings. Later gargoyles
grew to have symbolic meaning, telling stories of Christ, the
Virgin Mary, and the coming apocalypse, and in time ceased to
be mere conductors of rain water. These story telling sculptures
helped convey symbolism to the illiterate townspeople of the time.
Each sculpture was the brain child of an individual sculptor,
who could use this medium to convey a political statement about
a corrupt leader or explain his outlook on life through these
grotesque creations. In a sense, gargoyles were the comic strips
of the middle ages.
Exactly where New York fits
into this whole picture in terms of the symbolism of gargoyles
is kind of hazy. There is just something about new York architecture,
its reliance on old rather than new forms, which lends itself
to the usage of gargoyles. At the time when New York was expanding,
around the turn of the century, the United States was in the midst
of a gothic revival. This mostly effected churches, but the effects
of this trend is also evident in the types of decorations (gargoyles)
which were used on many of these old buildings. Imagine seeing
a huge, grotesque gargoyle affixed to one of Los Angeles' glass
skyscrapers. This image just doesn't work. New York architecture
is the ideal fit for incorporating these ancient stone statues.
While many New Yorkers are oblivious or indifferent to the existence
of these stone onlookers who line their streets, gargoyles are
a part of the charm and character that make this modern city appear
far older than its years.
|Although not exactly a "gargoyle", Grand Central Station shows the continuing importance of figurative decoration on buildings.
||As well as the usual gothic buildings, gargoyles in New York appear, as here, on even distinctly non medieval buildings.
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