The first time I saw the Yale campus as an incoming freshman, my father and I drove right through the heart of it without realizing we had arrived. I had grown up in the Midwest, where college campuses were a bit more bucolic. The main part of the Yale campus seemed to consist of medieval fortresses bordered by city streets. Much of it had been built during the Depression on the Oxford/Cambridge model. Apart from the electrical wiring and indoor plumbing, the buildings were distinguished by their authentic Gothic detail, right down to their leaded windows and the gargoyles tucked away in odd nooks and crannies. My favorite gargoyle was an impish stone figure in the Sterling library curled around a book open to a page that read: U.R.A. JOKE. The gargoyles seemed to mock the high seriousness of the institution. There was a carving of a student asleep at his desk, another with a mug of beer. A gargoyle in the law school depicted a professor sleeping though class, and one at a residential college was busy relieving himself.
Yale’s gargoyles might appear to be incongruous, but they are no more so than the stone carvings on many medieval cathedrals. The icons of the church are generally found inside -- the patriarchs, saints and martyrs who occupy places of honor over the altar, at stations of the cross or on stained glass windows. Gargoyles mostly lurk in dark corners or high upon the parapets. They are hideous creatures for the most part: demons, dragons, pagan deities, all manner of fanciful beasts.
There are various theories to explain how they came to adorn buildings consecrated to God; none is entirely persuasive. The most common explanation is that they are there to ward off evil. Perhaps so. However, one would think the icons would be better suited to that task than creatures incubated in some nightmare. Bernard of Clairvaux, who founded the Cistercian order in the 12th century, was not persuaded that these "fantastic monsters" served any useful purpose at all. He complained that they were expensive to produce and did little more than distract his monks from their reading.
I suspect the grotesque appearance of most gargoyles may derive from their original function. They began as ornamental downspouts designed to direct rain water away from the foundation and walls of church buildings. It would hardly do to depict a saint or martyr with water gushing from his or her mouth -- or worse, from some other bodily orifice. Accordingly, the stone masons were given free rein to conjure up creatures who might suitably vomit, spit, drool or defecate from the heights without unsettling the faithful.
Although usually associated with Gothic cathedrals, gargoyles were also found in ancient Greece and Egypt and are strikingly similar to the fearsome creatures who guard the gates of Buddhist and Hindu temples. Their descendants continue to haunt the popular imagination in comic books, horror films and computer games. To borrow a phrase from the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, they are monsters of the id, embodying the dark side of the human psyche.
Gargoyles hardly seem fit company for the communion of saints. Yet the brightest lights cast the deepest shadows. This is why Halloween abuts All Saints Day and Mardi Gras comes right before Ash Wednesday. As much as we might wish to dispel the darkness, we cannot really do so. As Carl Jung pointed out, it is the darkness that engenders the light. Gargoyles are no more out of place in a cathedral than a jester in the court of a king. They are as much an expression of who we are as the saints and martyrs we celebrate within. To understand fully what it is to be created in God's image, we must learn to see in the dark.
C.G. Jung, Modern Man In Search of a Soul