Gurgling Gargoyles: Artfully Draining Water

Like most collectors I started small. In fact, in the beginning I had no intention of becoming a collector. But it only took the second photo, and Bam!, I was a gargoyle waterspout photo collector.

IMG_2171 - Version 2
Barcelona, Spain

If you’ve followed our blog for a while, you’ve noticed that we enjoy architectural details. We’ve had luscious Peruvian balconies, opulent Spanish arches, and a baby-blue Slovak church. And now, it’s the weird and wonderful world of gargoyles.

Rothenberg Gargoyle
Rothenburg, Germany

The word gargoyle originates from the old French word gargouille meaning throat. Architects began using gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals between the 11th – 13th Centuries. The idea was simple; drain water from the church roof to prevent damage to the building walls and foundation. A long, straight spout would have done the job, but if you’ve seen many Gothic buildings you know that few opportunities for ornate decorations were passed up – hence artistically carved stone gargoyles.

Krakow, Poland

Most frequently, gargoyles were winged dragons, but they could also be other animals (and hybrid animals), mythical creatures and even humans. In addition to their water draining duties, depending on who you read, they were thought to ward off evil, or meant to warn churchgoers about evil.

Munich Man Gargoyle
Munich. Germany

The earliest waterspouts were carved stone. Carvers worked at ground level and the sculptures were attached to the rooftops after completion. Given the length required to effectively drain the water, these heavy sculptures must have been tricky to attach. And a falling gargoyle must have beaned the wrong person, because in 1724 Parliament passed the London Building Act which made the use of downpipes (downspouts) compulsory on all new construction.

Budapest Downspout
Budapest, Hungary

More modern gargoyles were made of metal, usually copper or bronze. This softer material gave artists much more flexibility which led to considerably more eclectic and flamboyant designs.

Krakow Gargoyle
Krakow, Poland

Krakow was a veritable mother lode of metal gargoyles and these copper beauties are my favorites.

Tallinn Gargoyle
Tallinn, Estonia

The Tallinn City Hall has a colorful, more-fun-than-graceful gargoyle that wouldn’t be out of place in a children’s fairy tale.

San Miguel Modern Gargoyle
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Most of my gargoyle viewing has been in Europe, but our trip to San Miguel de Allende in the Central Highlands of Mexico showed  a completely different style.

San Miguel Cactus in Waterspout
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Modern historians aren’t overly kind to the Conquistadores, but when Columbus and his compatriots came to the Americas, in addition to unspeakable oppression, misery, and pestilence; European ideas and technology sailed with them. And one of these tiny technologies was the ability to effectively drain water from rooftops preventing damage to adobe walls.

San Miguel Succulent in Waterspout
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Over the centuries architects have devised all sorts of embellishments to make buildings more interesting and attractive. But for my money, a snarling, double-duty gargoyle is one of the biggest bangs for the buck.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Wroclaw Gargoyle
Wroclaw, Poland


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

74 thoughts

  1. I recall some of these from other posts but all together that is a serious arsenal of drain pipes! I had no idea about the meaning of the word nor the purpose. Now I am afraid you have ignited my own gargoyle wanderlust. I shall be on the look out for ones you have not seen. 🙂

    1. Sue, I think that these gargoyles are so fun, and it’s interesting that each one is unique. The metal ones are my faves because they are so complex, and I love the copper patina. My next challenge is to get a photo while the rain is pouring and the gargoyle is spewing water. ~James

    1. I have been to Borobudur Bama, but I don’t remember the gargoyles. But with all its terraces and different levels, of course the designers planned drainage. It’s interesting though, as I was putting this post together, I couldn’t come up with any gargoyles from SE Asia. I’m sure they’re there, but I didn’t have any photos. ~James

  2. I love love love your collection!!! And I used to just take photos of small (almost unnoticeable) sculpture and other things just coz I found them lovely too. Haven’t really thought of them as something other than an intricate design. This collection makes me more inspired to collect further and now I just realized that some of which actually serves a purpose. Hah! 😀

    1. Thanks. I love these fun and colorful embellishments, and I’m glad that you like them as well. We’ve done lots of posts on architectural details, and they’re always fun. I encourage you to look at your small sculptures and put them together into a post. It’s an unusual topic, and if you’re like me, it will motivate you to look at them in more detail and think through their artistic significance. Let me know how it goes. ~James

  3. Wonderful collection. It is easy to get fixated on a particular item to photograph. For me it is stone arch bridges and covered bridges, oh, and waterfalls too! I have always loved gargoyles. I had one I kept on the dash in my truck, then in my jeep for years.

    1. Thanks Laura. I’ve always enjoyed stone arch bridges as well, but I don’t have lots of opportunities to photograph them. I appreciate how much work and planning goes into each one, and how difficult it must be to build one, especially in the old days. BTW, why are covered bridges covered? I’ve read a few explanations, but what do you think? ~James

      1. One of the main reasons was to keep the snow off the bridge. We have a stone arch bridge in the town we live in, it is one of two in the state where the radius is different at each end

      2. That certainly makes perfect sense for your area. I had also read that it was to prevent horses from being skittish while crossing a bridge with no rails on the side. ~James

  4. What a fun collection! I love these, too, but your pictures are far better than mine — you’ve got the angles as well as the eye! Love the long, stickin’ out variety in Krakow, that green one in Estonia reminds me of a puppet on Sesame Street! Love ’em all.

    1. Rusha, the Tallinn gargoyle looks like a modern cartoon, but it’s draining the roof of the beautiful town hall which was built in 1530. And interestingly, gargoyles are tricky for me to photograph. They have bright sky on one side and usually a dark overhang on the other. Needless to say, I take lots of shots that don’t turn out well. ~James

  5. Thanks for reminding me of our first long-term overseas adventure together, in Collioure, France, where green fired-clay dragons poured rainwater onto the streets. It’s a fond memory, as yours must be, given the loving care you’ve given to your collection of photos.

    1. Thanks Tom. If you root around the internet, you’ll find that some of the most famous gargoyles are French – Notre Dame in Paris as a matter of fact. I read that you and Louise are freezin’ your butts there, and having having experienced some French winter myself, I can relate. I remember sitting on a stone bench in the snow, overlooking the Seine, and thinking: “What the hell am I doing here?” Hang in there, spring is just around the corner. ~James

    1. Thanks Martha. Aren’t these gargoyles wonderful. I’ve been meaning to publish this post forever, and I’m happy that I finally did. Art is a wonderful thing, but the pragmatist in me likes it when it’s functional as well. ~James

    1. Thanks Marilyn. I noticed that as well, and obviously the crown represents royalty, but I wasn’t able to establish exactly what the link is. Some of the Krakow gargoyle photos were taken in the Wawel Castle, which of course, was the King’s residence. The others, I’m not so sure about, but the gold crowns are neat. ~James

  6. Great! if you are ever at Washington D.C.’s National Cathedral, look for the two carvings: a stone carver (whistling at a girl as I recall) and a bishop with his hands at his cheeks in shock.

    1. Thanks for the info. I love that they have a sense of humor, especially on a Cathedral. I checked this out online, and: “There are 112 gargoyles, the last completed in 1987, and more than 3,000 grotesques and other architectural carvings.” Wow, this would be a gargoyle gold mine. Next time I’m in the area, I’ll check it out. ~James

    1. Joyce, don’t you love the cactus growing in a downspout. The gargoyles in San Miguel had more of a sense of humor, and I can’ imagine how long it took the cactus to grow. Hope you and Dascal are well. Love, JH

    1. Thanks Tess. I enjoy writing these photo-inspired posts. We’ve done doors, gates, and now gargoyles. I’ll have to go back to the iPhoto mine to see if there are other topics. ~James

  7. Great collection. It is funny how when you notice things like this and starting taking photos, that you see it everywhere. (I had a similar compulsion with people using iPads for cameras). We just don’t make buildings like we used to, do we? These details give the buildings so much character.

    1. Art and function – the best of both worlds Jeff. Wouldn’t you love just one of these on your house. If you could find an artist to make one it would probably cost a fortune, but how cool would it be? ~James

    1. Dorothy, I saw another water spout in Tallinn that I particularly loved but couldn’t include because it wasn’t a gargoyle. It was a 5 ft boot! If you remember there, were two areas; the old historic walled city down the hill, and the area where the rich folks lived on top of the hill. The boot was on a building on the main path up the hill. It was so cool. ~James

  8. So interesting once again. Years ago I had bought some small, stone gargoyle sculptures at an architectural store in Chicago. For years, especially when my kids were small, they referred to them as “the monsters.” I had to keep them in the basement. And even now, with them both nearly grown, they don’t want them displayed because they say it brings back bad memories – I just can’t win with the darn things! I do think they are beautiful and look for them on buildings as well – supposed to scare away evil spirits like you mentioned. Thanks for jogging my memory! 🙂

    1. Kelly, your kids may not be far off the mark. This was more info than I wanted to put into the post, but in order to be called a gargoyle, the sculpture must drain water. If it isn’t a water spout, it’s called a chimera, and if the sculpture is strictly decorative, it’s called a grotesque. So, depending on what you bought in Chicago, it could actually be a “monster.” ~James

      1. I wonder what Richard would think if I livened up our gutters at home? I’m thinking frogs or gators since it is Florida. 🙂

  9. Like you, I’ve been fascinated by gargoyles and have tried taking photos of all that I encounter. Your photos are considerably better!! I didn’t know, however, that they were drainage spouts. I often wondered why they were built poking out of the corners of a building. Now that you’ve mentioned it, it’s so obvious!!
    The variety of gargoyles you’ve discovered is truly impressive 🙂

    1. Joanne, you didn’t see all the stinker shots that didn’t make into the post. As I said to another commenter gargoyles are tricky for me to photograph. They have bright sky on one side and usually a dark overhang on the other so they turn out too dark or too bright. I just have to take lots of shots to get it right. ~James

  10. I had no idea that gargoyles had any other purpose than scaring people. Now you’ve proved that all over the world, people have been having tons of fun with them, and I’m the one who’s been missing out.

    1. It’s interesting that you mention people being scared of them. In fact, in the Middle Ages some monks complained that they didn’t want all these grotesque sculptures watching over them while they prayed and meditated. ~James

  11. I am sure the gargoyle that fell off the roof and bonked someone on the head was doing in a sinner, James. Sort of like Liberia when anyone was struck with lightning… another bad guy bit the dust. Now-a-days if anyone got hit on the head by a gargoyle, there would probably be a hefty lawsuit involved, at least there would be in the U.S. 🙂 –Curt

    1. Curt, being hit by a falling gargoyle could certainly be construed as bad Catholic karma for sure. Some of the carved ones that we saw were 6-7 ft long, so I’m certain that when they fell everyone noticed. ~James

    1. These Mexican ones were really funny, and they raised all sorts of questions. For instance, are they natural or were they planted? And if they were planted, why? I mean; they are supposed to drain water from the roof, and a plant in the tube must certainly slow the drainage. Pretty weird – and cool at the same time. ~James

  12. First of all, I loved this post! Second of all, I now see where the word ‘gargle’ comes from!
    And finally, I enjoyed seeing your amazing gargoyle pics and learning about their different styles! The winged dragons are very cool… There are gargoyles here in NYC on buildings and you’ve inspired me to take a tour around town in search of them!
    Happy travels!!

    1. Thanks Lia. I don’t know NYC well, but I suspect that you’ll find most of the gargoyles there on cathedrals and turn of the century buildings. In the US, that seems to be where most of them are. Good hunting, and if you do a post, let me know. ~James

      1. Thanks James ! I’ll go gargoyle hunting and let you know when I post! Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

  13. I love gargoyles and adore your collection! I have a small one I’ve named Gaston that I found in a gallery in Sedona. He has been with me for many years now. Would love to see the rest of your collection.

    1. Thanks LuAnn. As you can tell, I’m partial to gargoyles as well. And until I wrote this post, I hadn’t thought about the connection with gargoyles in Mexico. And who knows, maybe there will be a Gargoyles Part Deux post in the future. ~James

  14. What a delightful and eclectic collection of gargoyles! I especially love the quirky East European ones. Surprised that there aren’t any from Paris! 🙂

    1. Thanks Madhu. I haven’t been to Paris in a while and when I was there, I hadn’t started my photo collection. But it’s certainly home to lots of gargoyles. Notre Dame Cathedral has some of the most famous gargoyles, chimeras and grotesques in the world. ~James

  15. Great collection of photos! I love gargoyles. I don’t know why. If you knew me, you’d be surprised to learn this because it doesn’t seem like something that would really be my thing. But when I saw my first ones in San Antonio, TX, I was hooked. There’s just something about them. I just love ’em.

    1. Obviously, I share your feeling about gargoyles Juliann. I’m a practical guy, and I guess for, me gargoyles are an interesting combination of function and art. I particularly like the whimsical metal ones with the nice green copper patina. ~James

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