Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Gargoyles & Grotesques-

Someone was writing about gargoyles the other day, and that made me think of a passage in Robert Williams' 1835 book "An Historical Sketch of the Art of Sculpture in Wood" which is not precisely about gargoyles, but about such grotesque carvings in general, and what their inspirations often were-

"There are many bas-reliefs, particularly those carved underneath the seats of the choirs of different religious structures, that represent grotesque , and even obscene subjects, altogether at variance with the sacred character of the buildings in which they are placed. Something of this kind may be observed in Worcester cathedral, in Ely cathedral, in the priory church of Great Malvern, and in many other ecclesiastical edifices.

"What may be thought most singular, is, that these sculptures sometimes represent priests and other religious persons, engaged in actions of a very profane description. For a satisfactory reason for this, I am indebted to my friend, Mr. Cottingham. The sculptors who executed those carvings were the caricaturists of the time and, as different religious communities were frequently at variance with each other, they employed these artists to satirize their mutual follies and vices.

"Under their seats they concealed from the public eye, but exposed for their own private gratification, a series of pictorial libels. In one place, the monks of a certain order are represented as licentious, ridiculous, and depraved: -in the building belonging to these holy fathers, will, probably, be found a similar series of bas-reliefs, exposing the secret debaucheries of the sacred brotherhood by whom they have been libelled- but never, in any church, will a priest of that order be represented in an unholy character. He will very likely be discovered thus pictured in the church of the Franciscan, while the follower of St. Francis receives the same treatment from the Carthusian brethren in their own buildings.

"The various monastic establishments, which at one time were exceedingly numerous in England, generally regarded each other with considerable jealousy and, more than once, their animosities and squabbles have disturbed the peace of the kingdom, and brought disgrace upon the un-reformed religion. This occasioned some of our most ancient ecclesiastical edifices to be disfigured with grotesque and offensive designs"

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