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

Posted on: May 20th, 2013 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 6 Comments

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

Washington National Cathedral. Credit: 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 this year’s 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:

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Architecture, National Treasures, Slideshows

6 Responses

  1. Mike Carter

    May 20, 2013

    This is very fascinating, thanks so much for sharing this. I just love the look of all of the gargoyles in that place, I would really love to visit it for myself someday. I have seen many gargoyles online, most of them of pictures I found on the internet. But I never knew that there were so many different types of them that are assorted into all sort of different animals.

  2. Lyndia Lowy

    May 23, 2013

    Too bad the Darth Vader gargoyle isn’t shown here. He’s certainly frightening enough, and connects the Cathedral to the 20th century.

  3. Robin Neely

    May 23, 2013

    Linda, Thanks for this fun and whimsical slideshow, not only did I enjoy the photos but also learning about the stories behind the sculptures. My favorite was the Cathedral dean shocked at the stone masons whistling at pretty girls on the street. Thanks!
    Robin Neely
    Stained Glass Conservator & Consultant

  4. Robert Darling

    May 23, 2013

    Wonderful photos and delightful information about the gargoyle/grotesque sculpture. The National Cathedral rewards on so many levels. One of the best National Treasures we love to visit and to explore. Great Presentation — thank you.

  5. Alexa Carter Britton

    May 23, 2013

    Thanks for bringing back great memories of my 2 visits to the National Cathedral. I loved the gargoyles so much, I purchased 3 small replicas in the gift store when I was there last. They make me laugh every time I bring them out to display in my home.

  6. Chris Budny

    May 29, 2013

    A fun posting to read, and I like the sepia treatment on the photos. I’m a volunteer tour guide at the cathedral, and you’re right; it is endlessly fascinating, and photographer’s paradise! I have an online gallery of some of my favorite cathedral photos here, if interested in a peek: