Washington DC, A to Z: Gargoyles on the Cathedral Walls

The West Facade of the Washington National Cathedral
(yellow arrows indicate the level of gargoyles)

The Washington National Cathedral  was constructed between 1907 and 1990 in the style of a 14th century Gothic cathedral.  It is the 6th largest cathedral in the world and the 2nd largest in the United States. On its exterior walls are more than 3,000 grotesques and other architectural carvings including 112 gargoyles.

The best explanation I’ve found regarding the difference between gargoyles and grotesques is from the program for Gravely Gorgeous: Gargoyles, Grotesques &  the Nineteenth-Century Imagination (click here for credits):

We tend to call any piece of architectural sculpture that depicts animals a gargoyle. Strictly speaking, however, gargoyles are decorative waterspouts that preserve stonework by diverting the flow of rainwater away from buildings. The word, gargoyle, derives from the French gargouille, or throat, from which the verb, to gargle, also originates. Although the sculptural waterspout originated in Antiquity, it grew in popularity on Romanesque structures, and proliferated during the Gothic period. Grotesques, while similar in appearance, serve a variety of other practical and ornamental functions, as corbels or capitals, for instance. The term, grotesque, can apply to any fanciful human or animal form, especially when it indulges in caricature or absurdity. These sculptural creatures appear most commonly on religious structures, but also on university buildings, town halls and even on homes.

The Cathedral was severely damaged (the most recent estimate is $26 Million) by an earthquake on August 23, 2011. The scaffolding, visible in the above picture and the picture of  The Thief shown below, was installed around the damaged areas as a safety measure.The exhibit Though the Earth Be Moved  located on the 7th floor of the Cathedral explains the damage in detail. Photo galleries and videos about the damage done to the Cathedral by the earthquake can be viewed online.

This gargoyle’s head is on display on the 7th floor of the Cathedral. Click here to see pictures of Joe and Andy removing the gargoyle  from the west face of the south transept.

The Washington National Cathedral gargoyles are much more whimsical than other gargoyles I’ve seen. Here are some of the gargoyles I managed to take a decent picture of (and identify).  The names are from DC Memorials  where there are multiple pictures for every gargoyle, although not always from the angle I shot from. Going to the Cathedral and taking pictures of gargoyles was very high on the list of things I wanted to do on vacation. I was blessed with a beautiful day for it.

Balancing Act
The Thief
Missouri Bear
Curly Locks
Mischievous Grandson

Gargoyle tours are offered April through October for $15 per person. Self guided tours can be obtained online or at the Cathedral. As the website suggests, binoculars are very helpful.

There are many virtual tours on the Cathedrals web site.  I only had time to look at one of them to find the part about gargoyles.

 From the 5:45 minute to 7:08 minute points of the “behind the scenes” video for the North Tower, the camera zooms above the second row of windows and shows a gargoyle in action protecting the Cathedral from rainwater and detailed views that can’t be seen from the ground (such as the face of the “The Thief” that isn’t visible in the picture I took or the pictures at DC Memorials).

This is the second time I’ve used Gargoyles for the letter G in the A to Z challenge. Two years ago I wrote about Gargoyles in Minneapolis.  If you’ve read this far you must also find gargoyles interesting. Are there any gargoyles on buildings where you live? What other buildings, besides Notre Dame, have lots of gargoyles?

6 thoughts on “Washington DC, A to Z: Gargoyles on the Cathedral Walls

  1. Wow, I didn't know that! Thank you so much for sharing and making that clearer. I realize now that I've seen far fewer gargoyles than I thought I had, and used the term incorrectly in my own writing. Opps!


  2. I didn't know that gargoyles were required to have drains through them until now either. There are so many faces on the building and most of them are so high up they are rarely even seen. The Darth Vader Grotesque is the most popular.


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