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Churches Conservation Trust - Lunchtime Lectures #10 & The E-Bound guide to Gargoyles and Grotesques

Whoever said churches were dull and boring clearly hasn't been following our weekly lecture series. Our free lectures take place live every Thursday online, but you can catch up on every single one right here. Our lectures explore everything from art, architecture, history, politics to even some pretty weird and wonderful topics too!

In the 12th century, church leader, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was famous for speaking out against gargoyles.

“What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent’s head, there a fish with a quadruped’s head, then again an animal half horse, half goat… Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.”

Another video in our highlights from the CCT Lunchtime Lecture series.

This weeks video: GARGOYLES AND GROTESQUES: Why are there Monsters on Medieval Churches? With Dr Alex Woodcock

Gargoyles and grotesques are an immediate and appealing feature of many historic churches and cathedrals. Often carved into fantastic monsters and imaginative, bold, sometimes obscene figures, they have largely been dismissed as whimsical and indeed, incongruous with their setting, at best something the masons managed to ‘get away with’ when the patron was looking the other way. Dr Alex Woodcock is a writer, stonemason and artist immersed in the worlds of medieval sculpture.

His books include Gargoyles and Grotesques (Bloomsbury, 2011), Of Sirens and Centaurs (Impress, 2013) and King of Dust (Little Toller, 2019). Between 2008 and 2014 he worked at Exeter Cathedral as a stonemason, playing a key role in the conservation of its internationally significant west front. He teaches on the Cathedrals’ Workshop Fellowship foundation degree and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

His website is and he can be found on twitter @beakheads. In this talk Dr Alex Woodcock explores the theories advanced over the last century and a half for their presence on churches and how this type of imagery has consistently antagonised critics, before looking more closely at the complexities of the grotesque and what it might reveal to us about medieval churches and the wider medieval world.

Check out the full range of video lectures Here and Here

Stay tuned for more videos from the CCT in coming weeks.

David's book 'Gargoyles and Grotesques' by Shire Publications, was released in 2011 and is available in book shops and online.


E-Bound Guide to Gargoyles and Grotesques

What's the difference?

Gargoyles and grotesques are decorative features that are often found on buildings, particularly on Gothic cathedrals and other medieval structures like churches.

While they are often used interchangeably, gargoyles and grotesques are actually two distinct types of architectural ornamentation.

Gargoyle - Derived from the Old French gargouille, meaning throat, the term was first used to describe carved lions and spouts on ancient classical buildings.

They often have grotesque, animalistic or monstrous features, and were believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the building from harm.

Grotesques were originally buried Roman ornamental decorations that were discovered during the Renaissance in subterranean ruins known as grotte, hence grotesques. We now associate the term with unnatural, ugly or distorted forms, which can have the power to shock or scare those that cast their eyes over them.

Both gargoyles and grotesques have a long history in Western art and architecture.

The use of these decorative elements dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, where they were used to adorn buildings, fountains, and other public spaces. However, the tradition of using gargoyles as water spouts originated in medieval Europe, where they became a popular feature of Gothic architecture.

The use of gargoyles and grotesques declined in popularity during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but experienced a resurgence during the Gothic Revival of the 19th century. Today, gargoyles and grotesques continue to be a popular decorative feature on many buildings, particularly those with a Gothic or medieval architectural style.

A gargoyle - has a physical purpose

Marble Church, Bodelwyddan, Clwyd - Photograph by Kev Bailey on Flickr

A grotesque - just decorative

Winchester cathedral gargoyle - Photograph by Tony Hisgett


In the Middle Ages, it seems that both gargoyles and grotesques were called babewyn from the Italian word babuino, which means baboon.

Types of Gargoyles and Grotesques and what they represent:

Screamer/Face puller: These figures can have their hands firmly clasped to their heads and their mouths agape in a haunting display. It is believed that they were intended to serve as a warning to churchgoers, reminding them of the torment that awaited them should they neglect their attendance at church.

St Peter’s Church, Walpole St Peter, Norfolk


Numerous gargoyles can be seen sticking out their tongues and blowing raspberries. While this may seem impolite by contemporary standards, such gestures were not deemed offensive during medieval times. Rather, they were utilized as a means of denouncing traitors, heretics, and blasphemers.

St Michael's Church, Laxton, Nottinghamshire © Alan Murray-Rust cc-by-sa


During the medieval era, numerous church officials held the belief that music was an extravagant and self-indulgent pleasure. They feared that it had the potential to lead the easily influenced and uneducated into a variety of sins and difficulties.

Beverley Minster, Yorkshire


Christianity typically portrays the dragon or serpent as a symbol of wickedness, often used to represent the devil.

St Andrew's Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire - Copyright © 2009 Hamish Fenton cc-by-sa


Angels are enigmatic beings who serve as instruments of God, carrying out tasks as messengers, enforcers of justice against wrongdoing, and bestowers of moral fortitude.

St Mary's Church, Battlefield Link Road, Battlefield, Shropshire

Demonic Creatures:

Gargoyles depicting demons are prevalent, serving as symbols of sinners who have not repented and are thus condemned to Hell.

St Botolph's Church, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire


Lions are a favoured motif for gargoyles, as they are seen to embody the majesty of Christ.


Human forms are fairly common, many being well carved.

Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex - local lawyer, Clifford Hodgetts, is caricatured as a gargoyle


Rude gargoyles and grotesques were created for a variety of reasons. Some were intended to serve as warnings or reminders to churchgoers of the consequences of sinful behaviour, while others were meant to be humorous or whimsical. In medieval times, depictions of the grotesque and macabre were considered appropriate for churches, as they were believed to serve as a reminder of the transient nature of life and the importance of leading a pious existence. Additionally, some craftsmen may have included rude or comical gargoyles simply for the sake of entertainment or as a display of their artistic skill.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Hunky Punk:

A Hunky Punk is a type of decorative architectural element found on buildings, especially in the West Country of England. It is a carved, often grotesque figure that protrudes from the roofline or parapet of a building, similar to a gargoyle or a chimera. The name "Hunky Punk" is thought to have originated from the local dialect and its meaning is unclear, but it is believed to refer to the figures' exaggerated features and comical appearance

St John's Church in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. A literal Hunky Punk, punk

Some notable UK Grotesques:

Newcastle Cathedral

Newcastle Cathedral vampire rabbit

For over a century, the Vampire Rabbit of Newcastle has perched ominously above the ornate rear door of the Cathedral Buildings, facing St Nicholas Cathedral. Its creation in 1901 alongside the rest of the building remains a mystery.

According to local lore, the grotesque was erected to ward off grave robbers who plagued the area. One dark night, the fanged lepus emerged on the door opposite the graveyard, scaring off any future intruders. Others speculate that the Vampire Rabbit is, in fact, a hare with its ears placed backward. This theory suggests that the bloody creature was installed to pay homage to Sir George Hare Phipson, a local doctor, Freemason, and friend of the cathedral's architect. Alternatively, the rabbit may symbolize the arrival of spring, evoking the same connotations as the Easter Bunny.

Originally the same hue as the surrounding stonework, the Vampire Rabbit has been painted black in recent times. Its teeth and claws now bear blood-red stains, adding to its menacing appearance.

Paisley Abbey

Paisley Abbey alien

Paisley Abbey was initially constructed in the 12th century and holds a wealth of historical significance. Legend has it that even Sir William Wallace received his education within its walls. However, it is the abbey's modern architectural features that have captured the attention of sci-fi enthusiasts.

In 1991, the abbey underwent crucial restoration work. Unfortunately, twelve of the thirteen gargoyles were severely damaged by water and required replacement. An Edinburgh-based stone masonry firm was commissioned for the task and created new carvings to replace the old ones.

Reportedly, the stone masons added a touch of amusement to their designs. One of the gargoyles is particularly remarkable, which is fitting as per medieval tradition, no two gargoyles can be identical. The creature bears a striking resemblance to H.R. Giger's Xenomorph from the Alien franchise. Given the popularity of the movies during the 1980s and early 90s, it's likely that one of the workers drew inspiration from the otherworldly antagonist.

Lincoln Cathedral

The Lincoln Imp - photo:

According to legend, the Devil was feeling mischievous one day and dispatched two mischievous creatures to cause chaos on Earth. After reportedly stopping in Chesterfield and twisting the spire of St Mary and All Saints Church, the two imps made their way to Lincoln to wreak havoc in the city's Cathedral.

Upon arrival, the mischievous imps entered the cathedral and proceeded to cause havoc by knocking over the Dean, shattering the stained glass windows, and destroying the lights. In an effort to put an end to their mischief, an angel was sent to warn them against causing any more chaos.

One of the imps hid under a table, while the other threw stones and rocks at the Angel in a final act of rebellion, cheekily retorting, "Stop me if you can!"

In a fit of anger, the Angel turned the imp into stone. Since then, it has remained in the same spot, sitting cross-legged atop the pillar overlooking the Angel Choir, serving as a constant reminder that good will always triumph over evil.

If you're interested, you can visit Lincoln Cathedral and see the petrified Lincoln Imp for yourself. There's even a spotlight to help you spot it!

Additionally, you can find imps throughout the city, on door knockers, in gift shops, and even in the nickname of the local football team - the Red Imps.

Gloucester Cathedral

Source: Source:

Gloucester Cathedral initiated a project in 2019 to protect their structure from water damage by installing new gargoyles. The additions include a miner, complete with pickaxe and helmet, who can be seen calling out to those below, and a rugby player tightly gripping a ball, reminiscent of Disney's portrayal of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The project involves six gargoyles, each representing a different region within the county. Alongside the miner and rugby player, there is a female jockey clutching her trophy, a cheese-roller (a popular activity in the area), a suffragette, and a sheep shearer.

Stay tuned to our blog for more CCT videos and church related content.

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