Beasts on High

Chartres Cathedral
Chartres Cathedral Wikimedia Commons

"It was too human to be called like a dragon, too impish to be like a man, too animal to be like a fiend, and not enough like a bird to be called a griffin," writes Thomas Hardy in Far From the Madding Crowd, invoking a frightening image of a gargoyle perched high atop Weatherbury Church in Wessex, England.

A legacy of the medieval delight in adorning cathedrals with antic stone fantasies, the spirits of gargoyles and grotesques have crossed the Atlantic and come to haunt the upper reaches of the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul on Mount Saint Alban in Washington, D.C. Unlike the medieval figures, however, these creatures were fashioned by artisans during the latter part of the 20th century, so they often draw on modern imagery.

"The stone carvers' tradition of depicting themselves and their fellow workers in stone — of capturing scenes from work and life experience," writes Smithsonian folklorist Marjorie Hunt, "is a common practice going back centuries in the trade." On the north side of the nave sits the caricature of carver Roger Morigi, his legendary temper depicted by a mushroom cloud above his head. Hunt deftly recounts this and other stories in her new book, The Stone Carvers: Master Craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral.

Whether designed originally to chase away evil spirits, to draw pagans to Christianity by incorporating devilish imagery into the church, or to serve a design or utilitarian function, these stone-frozen creatures amuse us, much as they must have frightened medieval peasants who cast their eyes toward the heavens to look at the cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame more than 500 years ago.

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