The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity

The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity

by Michael Camille


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Most of the seven million people who visit the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris each year probably do not realize that the legendary gargoyles adorning this medieval masterpiece were not constructed until the nineteenth century. The first comprehensive history of these world-famous monsters, The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame argues that they transformed the iconic thirteenth-century cathedral into a modern monument.

Michael Camille begins his long-awaited study by recounting architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s ambitious restoration of the structure from 1843 to 1864, when the gargoyles were designed, sculpted by the little-known Victor Pyanet, and installed. These gargoyles, Camille contends, were not mere avatars of the Middle Ages, but rather fresh creations—symbolizing an imagined past—whose modernity lay precisely in their nostalgia. He goes on to map the critical reception and many-layered afterlives of these chimeras, notably in the works of such artists and writers as Charles Méryon, Victor Hugo, and photographer Henri Le Secq. Tracing their eventual evolution into icons of high kitsch, Camille ultimately locates the gargoyles’ place in the twentieth-century imagination, exploring interpretations by everyone from Winslow Homer to the Walt Disney Company.

Lavishly illustrated with more than three hundred images of its monumental yet whimsical subjects, The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame is a must-read for historians of art and architecture and anyone whose imagination has been sparked by the lovable monsters gazing out over Paris from one of the world’s most renowned vantage points.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226092454
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/01/2009
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 568,468
Product dimensions: 8.70(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Michael Camille (1958–2002) was professor of art history at the University of Chicago. His many books include The Medieval Art of Love and Mirror in Parchment.

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Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity


Copyright © 2009 Stuart Michaels
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-09245-4

Chapter One

Monsters of Reason


It is not the sleep of reason that produces monsters but more than anything else rationality, vigilant and unsleeping. GILLES DELEUZE AND F?LIX GUATTARI, Anti-Oedipus

One can hardly recognize Notre-Dame as we know it today from the early daguerreotype made by Vincent Chevalier just before 1840, an image in which the great cathedral appears as a disintegrating patchwork pile (fig. 4). In their 1843 project for the restoration, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus described the structure not as a church, but as a ruin. The second part of their forty-page text is a chronological account of the gradual destruction of this once magnificent Gothic edifice, not only by neglect and time but also by the violence of human hands.

Sculptures of the dead rising from their graves in the lintel over the central doorway had been removed by the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot in 1771 to allow the royal canopy to enter the church during processions, and during the French Revolution all signs of "féodalité" were suppressed. This meant almost all the jamb figures of the facade and the twenty-eight colossal statues of the gallery of kings were removed in two deliberate and drawn-out stages starting in 1793. Yet the Revolution, which for a time turned the cathedral into a "temple of reason" and caused its near destruction, was also paradoxically the catalyst for its eventual preservation. As a result of the expropriations of church property in 1789, the government became directly responsible for the administration and upkeep of churches. After liturgical rites were reestablished in 1803, an effort was made to repair the "métropole," as the cathedral was called, but restorers clad the fragile areas with a thin veneer of stone attached by iron pins that oxidized and damaged the structure even further. It was only under the July Monarchy (1830–48), the new bourgeois-led, centralized state, that serious steps were taken. Although the cathedral was nominally the financial responsibility of the local Department of the Seine, the importance of the basilica at the focus of national life made it the responsibility of the Catholic arm of the government under the Ministère de la justice et des cultes. After a decade of public pressure from notables like Victor Hugo, a competition for its restoration was finally announced in 1842.

To understand the genesis of the fifty-four chimeras that crown the balustrade of Notre-Dame, it is important to see them as part of the larger restoration project that took some twenty years to complete. Significantly, the two architects did not include them in their winning proposal, presented in January 1843, and never so many gargoyles as were eventually installed. This discrepancy is usually explained as Viollet-le-Duc's taking his own more radical initiatives after the death of his collaborator in 1857. However, as we shall see, the chimeras were all in place by this date. This we know from the Journal des travaux, a remarkably detailed day-by-day record of the restoration. The Journal begins on 30 April 1844 and stops 385 pages later, on 28 August 1864. This source, along with drawings and other documents, will be fundamental to my argument in this opening chapter, which will not only reconstruct the chronology of the chimeras but attempt to answer some larger questions. 4 Why, if not conceived as part of the initial scheme presented by the architects, did the gargoyles and chimeras so soon become an integral part of their restoration project? Were they solely the products of Viollet-le-Duc's imagination, or did Lassus also play a role? Another issue is whether these sculptures are in fact best understood under the category of restorations—that is, as replacements of lost or damaged elements of the original medieval building—or instead as totally new and unique creations of the nineteenth century.

I • The 1843 Project and Its Transformation

In their winning proposal, Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc argued that Notre-Dame was a monument that demanded a totally new approach to restoration. It was impossible to apply the conservative standards that one might in the case of an ancient structure like the Roman triumphal arch at Orange. Such a monument could legitimately be left as a ruin, but with a building that still retained its practical and symbolic function, the architect-restorer was obliged to return it to its former glory. Although young—Viollet-le-Duc was twenty-nine and Lassus thirty-eight—the two men entered the competition with the advantage of being already well-established members of a new, professional generation of architect-restorers. Lassus had been in charge of another Gothic building in the capital, the Sainte-Chapelle, from 1836, and Viollet-le-Duc had been at work on the Abbey of la Madeleine at Vézelay since 1840. These initiatives had been taken under the auspices of the Historic Monuments Commission, which had been set up with the purpose of compiling a list of protected monuments and allocating grants for restoration. Since 1834 its inspector general had been the flamboyant and indefatigable Prosper Mérimée, a close friend of Viollet-le-Duc. However, the memory of recent disastrous campaigns, such as the one at the Abbey of Saint-Denis, meant that restoration was a highly contentious issue.

Another official group, the Committee on Art and Monuments, led by the "archéologue" and iconographer Adolphe-Napoléon Didron (1806–67), had recommended in 1839 that the major principle of restoration should be to restore what was already there and not under any circumstances to add anything new. Didron questioned the necessity of reconstructing sculpture that had disappeared entirely and cited the example of the gallery of kings at Notre-Dame, asking, "Should these sites not remain empty? The fact that they are empty is, after all, historically significant." Initially opposed to the restoration of Notre-Dame, he had stated in L'Univers in 1841 that "Notre-Dame was solid and has no need to be repaired." Yet only four years later in his own journal, Annales archéologiques, he published the report submitted by le comte de Montalembert that approved the restoration in which the latter praised the selection of Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc to lead the project. De Montalembert nonetheless expressed concern that because they were architects, they could not keep themselves from making something "new." In 1845 Jean-Phillippe Schmit, another member of the Commitee on Arts and Monuments, published a study on the restoration of churches which stated, "The original character of a monument ... must be preserved and not destroyed by an ambitious restoration. A old man loses his dignity when his grey hairs are dyed, his wrinkles masked, and he is dressed in modern clothes; he becomes then, an old young man, a ridiculous caricature."

The press lampooned the restoration of Notre-Dame using exactly the same metaphors. In 1856 the Journal amusant published an article titled "The Old Monuments Have a Wash" (Les Vieux monuments ont fait toilette). The piece came out when work was well underway to install new statues in the jambs of the west portals. An illustration by Bertall depicts blackened old statues of the kings and queens wearing false white noses (fig. 5). The text reads:

And the antique Notre-Dame, the old cathedral of King Philippe Auguste that time has taken seven or eight centuries to blacken—take a look, it has been scraped, remade anew, competing in its whiteness and elegance with the little, well-built temple on the rue Laffitte! At least Gothic monuments do not lose in this their appearance of venerable antiquity, keeping their beautiful lines and elegant proportions, but what can one say of the restoration of the old statues that decorate them? The majority no longer have their noses; moreover, on these thin, sulfurous, ecstatic dreamers have been added the nose of the Apollo Belvedere, this straight nose dividing the face, this sensual nose, a pagan nose, a nose that would serve to damn this wise man when he presents himself thus renosed at the day of judgment. And this newest nose that one could make stands out on the blackened faces, strikes the eye, troubles the contemplative spirit, evoking goodness knows what idea of masquerade—Gothic with a false nose.

The article ends with an attack on the "rage for smartness that has overrun our old monuments." A derogatory phrase that appears over and over in the popular press and in the official arguments of both those for and those against restoration is "remise à neuf," or "to make new."

Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc seemed equally concerned with the dangers of restoration in their 1843 project, criticizing "the ignorant zeal which adds, recuts, completes, and ends up transforming an ancient monument into a new monument." Adopting a tentative, even humble tone, the two architects tried to downplay their creative role. They described how the restorer needs to "entirely efface and forget his instincts.... Far be it from us to foster the idea of 'completing' so remarkably beautiful a work of art; that is arrogance that we would not have countenanced.... The building is surely beautiful enough that it would be pointless to want to add anything to it."11 This reticence is visible in Viollet-le-Duc's watercolor drawing of the western facade, submitted with the winning design (fig. 6). The structure depicted looks quite different from the actual result. The rendering has a much less elaborate central spire, and there appears not a single chimera on the horizontal balustrade and far fewer projecting monsters and gargoyles on the corner pinnacles of both towers. The fact that the architects were soon to add far more expensive sculptures to the facade is even more surprising considering that they were specifically asked to cut costs from the beginning, to pare down rather than expand their scheme. They had estimated the costs at this time at 3,888,442 francs, 92 centimes, of which 658,954 francs were to underwrite construction of the new sacristy to be built alongside. They were asked to reduce this amount, and in May 1845 they produced a revised estimate of 1,973,882 francs, 67 centimes. Annexed to this revised report was a list of five categories of restoration classed according to the order of urgency, in which, significantly, "the restoration of gargoyles" appears in the very first category along with flying buttresses, roofs, and terraces. The second category of urgent repairs was that of "the western facade and towers," which would eventually include the chimeras.

The plan and budget was approved by a vote in the chamber in July 1845. However, the Committee on Art and Monuments objected to reconstructing the lost portal statues from models found on other cathedrals, and so another committee of "pairs de France" was formed to reevaluate the restoration plan. This included the novelist Victor Hugo and the wealthy liberal Catholic peer le comte de Montalembert (1810–70). The latter addressed the committee's concern about "dressing up our old cathedrals in new clothes,"13 by declaring that the two architects in charge planned to limit themselves to "carrying out essential repairs" and would not add any new decoration.

That this was in fact impossible was well understood by the architect and founder of the Revue générale de l'architecture et des travaux publics, César-Denis Daly (1811–93). He saw in the restoration competition for Notre-Dame yet another example of the conflict between those who view churches as historical monuments and those who see them as functioning religious buildings. He endorsed Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc's project over the two other entries, by Jean-Jacques Arveuf and Jean-Charles Danjoy, which, he argued, slighted the historical in favor of the religious function. Yet Daly nonetheless criticized the winners for one crucial discrepancy. To restore to the cathedral "toute sa splendeur" was not, as they argued, a matter of simple consolidation. "It is adding what does not exist and, as a result, removing what is there; it is completion according to a more or less vague ideal."

What was added after 1843 was the chimeras. Were they part of a "vague ideal," or was their appearance part of an accurate historical reconstruction? They appear clearly in an illustration of the restored west facade in the official monograph published by Viollet-le-Duc in 1856 (fig. 7). It was here that he made the strongest claim for their authenticity. "On every corner of the balustrade birds have come to perch, demons and monsters have come to squat. These picturesque figures have just been reestablished; the originals exist no more, but some of them, in falling, have left their claws attached to the stone." Marcel Aubert, in his definitive early monograph on the restored cathedral, reiterated this notion, describing the chimeras as at once being "products of the extravagant imagination of Viollet-le-Duc" and having been "completely reconstructed" after fragmentary remains.

Visual evidence for Viollet-le-Duc's claim that he found remnants of beasts that once had clung to the western balustrade of Notre-Dame occurs in a drawing of the facade made in 1699. It shows shadowy profiles of what appear to be vertical or diagonally placed sculptural masses rather than horizontal gargoyles, at the four projecting corners (fig. 8). Although they seem proportionally smaller than the ones that replaced them, they clearly recall the shapes of birds. These sculptural projections occur in pairs on each of the four buttresses, indicating that there were probably originally fewer than the fifty-four that Viollet-le-Duc would eventually place around the base of the two towers. It is also significant, if we are going to argue that there were originally beasts on the balustrade above the tall gallery, that this particular part of the facade be understood to date from the first half of the thirteenth century. Violletle-Duc argued in the Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture (hereafter Dictionnaire) that the whole facade was "rapidly erected toward 1235," and most scholars now agree that the two towers were erected between 1225 and 1250, the north tower being completed first and each with subtle differences of detail. This was a period when figurative sculpture was used increasingly throughout the elevations of churches at higher levels, not only in the form of gargoyles but around window embrasures and on bell towers. It is also important to remember that in the Middle Ages the two towers served the specific function of holding the great bells, eight in the north tower alone, each with its own name, sound, and distinct personality. These regulated the lives of medieval Parisians as do our clocks today. Whatever creatures had been perched at the towers' base along the balustrade, they formed part of a richly sonorous space. Their open mouths, along with those of gaping gargoyles and dragons perched on every pinnacle, served to articulate the booming voice of a building whose presence literally vibrated throughout the whole city. The bells of Notre-Dame told Parisians not only when to pray but when to get up, when to put down their tools, and when to make curfew. The early nineteenth-century cathedral had lost this temporal function in the face of the ticking clock. What made it a cadaver rather than a living building was not only its empty niches, but its silence.

Part of the rationale of both architect-restorers in 1843 was to use models of other cathedrals where the sculpture was still extant to fill in the gaps. For example, the central trumeau figure of Christ, carved by the leading sculptor Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume, was a hybrid of that at Amiens (the arm blessing) and that at Chartres (the other arm holding the book). Were the chimeras similarly modeled on original Gothic prototypes? In the first volume of Viollet-le-Duc's Dictionnaire, published in 1854, the entry "Animals" includes a profile of the west facade showing the relationship between an eagle placed on the balustrade and the projecting crockets and large winged gargoyle placed beneath it. Moreover he describes how "at the corners of the buttreses of the west front of Notre-Dame de Paris one sees also enormous sculpted beasts, which standing out against the sky, give life to these masses of stone" (fig. 9). Viollet-le-Duc also refers here to the precedent of the colossal beasts found on the towers of Laon. This was another early Gothic cathedral where projecting animals played an important sculptural role on the bell towers, supposedly representing the oxen who had pulled the stones up the hill during its construction (fig. 10). These animals had also been recorded in the thirteenth-century sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, which was first published in a facsimile by Lassus.


Excerpted from THE GARGOYLES OF NOTRE-DAME by MICHAEL CAMILLE Copyright © 2009 by Stuart Michaels. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Abbreviations of Locations and Sources of Illustrations
Part I: Restoration
1. Monsters of Reason: The Gargoyles of Viollet-le-Duc
I. The 1843 Project and Its Transformation
II. Drawings by Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus
III. Viollet-le-Duc’s Anti-iconographic Imagination
2. Monsters of Stone: The Gargoyles of Victor Joseph Pyanet
I. The Sculptor of Ornament
II. The Myth of the Medieval Craftsman
III. Life and Death on the Building Site
3. Monsters of Romanticism: The Gargoyles of Victor Hugo
I. Quasimodo’s Grimace and the Craze for Gargoyles
II. The Book Will Kill the Building
III. The View from Notre-Dame
IV. Michelet and the Devil’s Ogival Eye
4. Monsters of Race: The Gargoyles of Science
I. The Spirit of Evil: Physiognomy
II. The Wandering Jew: Aryanism
III. The Hairy Ape: Evolution
IV. The Cretin Unicorn: Degeneration
V. Stones and Bones: Paleontology
5. Monsters of Revolution: The Gargoyles of Politics
I. Political Animals on the Left and Right
II. The Brute and the Bourgeois
III. The Wild Beast and the Revolutionary Worker
IV. Shrouded Birds and Murdered Bishops
V. The Eagle and the Emperor
Epilogue to Part I: The Gargoyles Restored (1864)
Part II: Reproduction
6. Monsters of Melancholy: The Gargoyles of Charles Méryon
I. The Stryge’s Sex
II. The Self and the Squatting Ape
III. The Suicidal Stare
7. Monsters of Light: The Gargoyles of Photographers
I. The Dandy as Beholder: Charles Nègre and Henri Le Secq
II. The Worker as Beholder: Henri Le Secq and Viollet-le-Duc
III. The Beast as Beholder: From Marville to Mieusement
8. Monsters of Sex: The Gargoyles of Gender
I. Love among the Gargoyles
II. Freud, Hysteria, and the Gynecologic Gargoyle
III. Huysmans’s Chimera: The Cathedral as Whore
IV. Lulu Makes the Gargoyles Speak
V. Gay Gargoyles of the Nineties
9. Monsters of the Media: The Gargoyles in the Twentieth Century
I. The Chimerical Postcard
II. Dark Gargoyles: Surrealism, Fascism and the Occult
III. White Gargoyles: American Gothic from Winslow Homer to Disney
IV. Global Gargoyles on the Internet
Epilogue to Part II: The Gargoyles Restored Again (2000)
Appendix: The Chimeras (a List and Photographic Survey)

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