Notre Dame's gargoyles protected the iconic Cathedral, and the city of Paris, for centuries
The fire that broke out at the historic 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday, ripped through the building and caused significant structural damage.
The blaze, which burned for more than 12 hours, resulted in the cathedral's spire and roof collapsing and caused considerable damage to the interior, upper walls, and windows of the church, as well as numerous works of art, including the iconic rose windows.
News about the life-like gargoyle statues, one of the instantly-recognizable features of the centuries-old structure and which could be found at the top of the tower's stairs, watching silently over the city, is still scarce.
What is known, however, is that the stone masonry of the cathedral's exterior had already deteriorated in the 19th and 20th century due to increased air pollution in Paris, which in turn accelerated the erosion of decorations and discolored the stone. By the late 1980s, several gargoyles and turrets had either fallen off or become too loose to remain in place.
The New York Times reported that, as part of a recent $6.8 million renovation project, the broken gargoyles and fallen balustrades had been replaced by plastic pipes and wooden planks. But unfortunately, these proved to be even more vulnerable to the fire and falling debris.
The varied history behind these gargoyles makes the news about their disrepair all the more distressing. They were first added to the exteriors of the cathedral in 1240, around 80 years after its construction officially began, and served a quite modest purpose: As rain spouts.
Their job was to divide the torrents of water which poured from the roof after rains and divert it as far as possible from the buttresses, the walls and the windows, where it might have eroded the mortar binding the stone.
One could say they had a purifying role as well since they took in all the unclean and wastewater and kept it away from the walls. Since the architects knew they would need a large number of gargoyles to divide the torrent falling from the roof, they were thus designed to serve as a decorative element of the architecture.
But besides their obvious practical use, their presence is also quite symbolic. Their presence was initially inspired by age-old models found in temples of ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, though to reimagine this concept, the artists working on the Notre-Dame took inspiration from French folklore.
They turned to the 7th-century story of Saint Romain and La Gargouille, a fire-breathing dragon with bat-like wings, and long neck. The legend goes that Romain subdued the creature with a crucifix and then had it burned before mounting its head on the walls of a newly-built church for protection and to ward off evil spirits and demons.
Ever since, mythical creatures such as gargoyles and chimeras — another feature of the Notre-Dame's architecture — are common features in the exteriors of cathedrals and gothic churches. The most famous of Notre Dame's gargoyles, known as the 'Stryge' gargoyle, sits on top of the cathedral, casting a protective gaze over Paris.