Spirited stone

Gargoyles of Washington National Cathedral reveal many personalities: carvers, donors -- and characters
December 31, 2003

Steven Gotfried, the director of communications for Washington National Cathedral, is trying to help me see the "Darth Vader" gargoyle. But my eyes are drawn back again to a gargoyle below, a homely little figure with five o'clock shadow wearing a golf shirt, with a hole in one shoe and a cloven hoof, toting a mallet and a chisel. If I didn't know that it represents longtime master carver Roger Morigi, I might think that cathedral authorities had been asleep the day this gargoyle was set. But I do know that this figure of fun was carved by Morigi's mischievous colleague John Guarente.

How I came to know this story will be revealed shortly -- the thing to understand is that each of the 100-plus gargoyles adorning our national cathedral has a story behind it. Whether it's a tribute to the times ("The Hippie"), a truism (a harried-looking "Administrator"), or simply a treat (a naughty boy with a broken halo), the gargoyles add quirky individuality to the cathedral's classic Gothic majesty.

While the gargoyles reflect both worldly whimsy and religious faith, Darlene Trew Crist, author of American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone, says that, "On a cathedral, the gargoyles' spiritual meaning is so much greater than when they adorn office or academic buildings. They were, after all, meant to remind people of the consequences of sin, to show damned souls in eternal torment!"

"Gargoyles are an underappreciated art form. And they're so cool!" says Crist, who spent three years with photographer Roger Llewellyn seeking out gargoyles high and low throughout the United States.

What exactly is a gargoyle, and how is it distinguished from other figures? "A gargoyle can be a grotesque, but a grotesque can't be a gargoyle," says the cathedral's Gotfried.
It sounds, well, garbled, but it makes sense. Gargoyles, from the French gargouiller, meaning "gullet" or throat, are carvings with a mission -- to direct water away from buildings. First used in Greco-Roman times, it's little wonder that such symbolic figures found a place on churches. Although there are various stories about how this practice evolved, it seems safe to say that those "damned souls" would have looked mighty attractive to sinners outside a church -- and might have drawn some of them in. Grotesques, on the other hand, are carvings whose sole purpose is ornamental.

Asked if she had a favorite gargoyle, Crist says, "Do you know, no one's ever asked me that before? My favorite is definitely the elephant with the book on his head, used in my book's frontispiece." That elephant, found on the southwest corner of the southwest tower, was a tribute to a former cathedral bookstore manager and meant to show that bookstore managers need to have great memories.

'Definitive' guidebook

Fortunately, visitors who would like to see the cathedral gargoyles do not have to have the memory of an elephant in order to learn about which gargoyle is where and what it signifies. In September, the Washington National Cathedral Press released its first "complete and definitive" guidebook, Guide to Gargoyles and Other Grotesques, written by long-time cathedral supporter Dr. Wendy True Gasch. An opthamologist and dietitian/nutritionist, Gasch, is a Washington, D.C., native who is regarded as an expert on the cathedral gargoyles and grotesques. She became so after taking a gargoyle tour several years ago.

"These little critters all had stories behind them," says Gasch. "That's what makes them unique. I wanted to create a book that would allow people to wander around and respond to gargoyles that intrigued them. It amazes me how little has been written about gargoyles in general, so I tried to include their history, function and symbolism, along with how a gargoyle comes to be."

The cathedral's foundation stone was set in 1907, and construction began (following medieval tradition) at the east end. Although 24 grotesques were situated there, no gargoyles were put in place until the 1919-1969 tenure of Philip Frohman as architect. Frohman promoted a unified style for the cathedral, and on his watch the great European stone carvers came on board. The 112th and last gargoyle, deemed by Gasch as "the hideously striking caveman," was set in place in 1987 on top of the northwest tower.

Gasch's book lets visitors tour the gargoyles at their own pace, beginning at the north nave with "The Hippie" and finishing there with two uncarved stone blocks jutting from a tower. Artist/carver Joseph Ratti was working on them in 1955 when he fell to his death. "Only Ratti knew how he was going to carve the terminations [as the blocks are known]," said the former Clerk of the Works, Richard Feller, who died last year. "It would have been improper for anyone else to attempt them." [There is a memorial carving of Ratti within the cathedral's south transept.]

While in medieval times artist and carver were usually the same person, during the Renaissance the tasks were separated. Today the carvers use artist's models (for the most part) to execute their work. Using templates, the carvers interpret the artist's vision on a stone block that typically weighs several hundred pounds. Sometimes one end of the block is built into the wall with mortar, and the other end juts out as the carving process takes place, although many of the cathedral gargoyles were built in the construction yard. Using pneumatic hammers, it took an experienced carver two to three weeks to complete a gargoyle.

Marjorie Hunt, author of The Stone Carvers: Master Craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral, told me about the Morigi gargoyle, which she also writes about and details through interviews with Guarente and Morigi in her book.

"I took an ethnographer's approach; I really wanted my book to help people understand the carvers' perspectives," says Hunt, who has made the stone carvers her life's work. "I was totally inspired and captivated by their skill, dedication and pride. These men, many of them from Italy, loved the cathedral because they were allowed to stretch their art; they were given the time to do their very best."

To that end, the carvers sometimes worked on figures that visitors will never find, no matter which guidebook they use, because they're in places inaccessible to the general public. Crist was taken to see the Medusa gargoyle, for example, on the northeast corner of the southwest tower.

Of gargoyles like Medusa and other carvings, Hunt says, "They told me, 'God will see it, it's to His glory.'

"They were a real family, a real community. When John Guarente carved that gargoyle of Roger Morigi, Roger was furious at first -- but then he grew to love it! He saw it as a real tribute, which it was."

"The carvers had fun with their work; they were given some freedom to express themselves with the gargoyles and to immortalize themselves, their colleagues and their daily lives," notes Hunt, herself forever marked into cathedral limestone. Her film about the craftsmen, The Stone Carvers, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Carver Vincent Palumbo crafted an angel holding an Oscar statuette -- and gave the plaster model to Hunt as a wedding gift.

For more information, read:
The Stone Carvers: Master Carvers of
Washington National Cathedral
By Marjorie Hunt,
Smithsonian Press, 1999, $29.95.

American Gargoyles:Spirits in Stone
By Darlene Trew Crist,
Clarkson Potter, 2001, $22.50.

Guide to Gargoyles and
Other Cathedral Grotesques
By Wendy True Gasch,
Washington National Cathedral Guidebooks, 2003, $12.95.