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The gargoyles of Notre Dame, witnesses to so much

This week's heart-breaking fire is just the latest historic event they've overseen

Gargoyles on the cathedral of Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cite in central Paris.
(Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

As the world looks on in disbelief, the tragedy of Notre Dame continues to unfold in Paris. It is impossible to overstate the cathedral’s significance to the French nation, standing sentinel over the capital since the middle of the 13th century.

An example of the highest form of Gothic architecture, its resonance goes beyond the status as house of worship—the building has been the witness to the evolution, and Revolution, of France.

That position as witness to a nation has, curiously, been personified by strange, half-human, stone figures on its roofs: the gargoyles.

Hundreds of these sculpted watchers stood across Notre Dame.  Nothing more than elaborate drainpipes—and yet the gargoyles, from the French gargouille meaning throat—symbolised something else.  Quasi-demonic, they represented the forces of evil, forever outside the sanctuary of the church within. 

Not all the Notre Dame figures function as rain-water spouts. Many were placed simply as natural, supernatural or mythological symbols. Across the centuries, those which were spouts were also prone to erode.  Many others were destroyed during the French Revolution of the 1780s.  A restoration of the cathedral took place across 25 years in the mid -1800s, and the gargoyles—including a gargoyle of Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who oversaw the restoration—were restored and re-carved, giving new life to the statues.

Now, having survived revolution, 20th Century warfare—and even a Victorian restoration—the gargoyles suggest that even in the darkest periods, some things cannot be destroyed.

Three gargoyles.
General Photographic Agency / Getty Images
Scaffolding on the facade in 1968.
Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Repairs in 1931.
Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Workers restoring material in 1931.
Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The Vampire, a salt print by Charles Negre of a man with a gargoyle on Notre Dame cathedral, 1853.
Photo by GraphicaArtis / Getty Images
The Heron.
Getty Images
Cerberus, the mythical three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades.
Getty Images
The most photographed of the Cathedral’s gargoyles.
Getty Images
A gargoyle which, from behind, resembles a witch.
Getty Images
The Seine seen from a gargoyle’s perspective
The Print Collector / Print Collector / Getty Images
c. 1900
Installation works.
Getty Images
c. 1930
A horned gargoyle.
Edward Charles Le Grice / Le Grice / Getty Images
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