May 20, 2013

From Wild to Whimsical: The Gargoyles and Grotesques of Washington National Cathedral

Exterior of Washington National Cathedral

photo by: Linda S. Glisson

Washington National Cathedral

As a passionate photographer and preservationist, I’m always on the lookout for fascinating buildings, from the funky to the sublime. Washington National Cathedral, winner of the 2013 Partners in Preservation contest and also one of our National Treasures, is definitely the latter.

From the light streaming through stained glass windows and bathing the interior in a rainbow glow to the fantastical creatures that adorn the outside, National Cathedral is a photographer’s dream. Every time I visit I discover something new. And no wonder: There are 112 gargoyles, the last completed in 1987, and more than 3,000 grotesques and other architectural carvings.

So, what is a gargoyle? Basically, it’s a drain spout, designed to prevent rainwater from eroding the building’s walls. It’s also said that gargoyles were designed as frightening creatures to ward off evil forces or to remind passersby of the fates of sinners. (On the other hand, some speculate that they were just meant to amuse.)

A gargoyle is also described as a grotesque, but while all gargoyles are grotesques, not all grotesques are gargoyles. Grotesques include all fantastical creatures, whether they have drain pipes or not.

So let’s take a tour of a few of my favorites and learn the stories behind them:

By: Linda S. Glisson, Assistant Director for Information Resources, Main Street

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