JOHN RUSKIN, 19th-century English art critic, was a great admirer of things that are naturally (rather than artificially) beautiful - in art and architecture no less than in nature. And on this he based his strong preference for medieval or Gothic architecture rather than classical. Writing about the ``Nature of Gothic,'' however, this apostle of beauty did admit that Gothic included a ``sense of the Grotesque.'' He explained this further as ``the tendency to delight in fantastic and ludicrous, as well as in sublime, images.''
He may well have been thinking of gargoyles. Gargoyles come in all kinds of wild shapes - they could be a giant who pulls his mouth wide open with his fingers; a man, yelling, hoisted on the shoulders of another man; an amorous frog, hand (?) on chest, apparently belting out some unlikely blues number; a dog or a monkey; a mythical bird; a dragon or a lion. They can be any variation of amazing composite creatures that not even a mother looking the other way could love.
Gargoyles gape or howl, grin or shout - or just plain stick out their tongues. ``Fantastic and ludicrous,'' indeed. Ugliness rampant. Graffiti in stone.
But, strictly speaking, a ``gargoyle,'' though a rather elaborate sculptural object, was constructed to perform one of the more basic self-protective functions of a building (generally a church building). The sound of the word suggests its office. Through the open mouth of a gargoyle gushes or gurgles the rainwater from roofs and gutters. Gargoyles are waterspouts, projecting horizontally clear of the building like ship's figureheads, mischievously intent on dousing unsuspecting passersby.
This hardly angelic - though certainly practical - function must have at first given the masons pause for thought. Charged with decoratively disguising these spouts, they presumably considered the appropriateness of carving images of archangels or saints ... and then concluded that beasts and monsters would be apter. Besides - what a great opportunity to let the imagination rip.
There are carved gargoyles to be found from buildings earlier than the medieval. What is odd, perhaps, is that the medieval buildings in question were mostly ecclesiastical. Gargoyles adorn churches and cathedrals, particularly in France. What are they doing on sacred buildings? Why did the church authorities allow such license - and in some cases ``license'' is, even to our unsurprisable sensibilities today, the right word - to the imagination of stone carvers?
The answers to such questions tend to be varied and speculative. There isn't much in the way of records to go on.
It is pointed out, however, that gargoyles are far from being the only grotesque carvings to be found in medieval churches, inside as well as out. Chimeras, grimacing horrors, exaggerated faces, devouring and glowering, leering, horned, wrinkly, lewd, show up under seats (in the form of carvings called ``misericords''), as the focal point of the rib-structure in roofs (called ``roof-bosses''), or in a number of other adornable corners. And they appear on the outer construction of buildings as pure ornament, with no functional role at all.
Are they, in Ruskin's phrase, simply a matter of ``delight'' - evidence than the ``Dark Ages'' had a humorous side, that the grotesque was a matter of fun and laughter? Or are they, as others have concluded, symbols of the diabolic, of imps and devils and Satan, of evil ``powers'' to be banished by the church?
In a book called ``Grotesques and Gargoyles: Paganism in the Medieval Church,'' authors Ronald Sheridan and Anne Ross make a case that gargoyles are holdovers. They suggest on the one hand that the Christianization of Britain and the building of Christian churches may have involved some degree of tolerance of ancient folklore. Either that, or the churches were perhaps trying to ``canalize'' popular pagan imagery to serve their own visual messages to an illiterate populace: old ``gods'' turned into new ``devils.''
But at the same time, Sheridan and Ross write, ``The Church in medieval times had come to be the storehouse of the subconscious of the people - the lumber-room, as it were, in which were bygone, ancient, half-forgotten, half-formulated beliefs and superstitions, customs and folklore.''
If this is so, then the medieval church may well have tolerated and even relished gargoyles and grotesques. Perhaps they partly worshiped these mythical beings, thought of them as guardian images even, a warning to potential intruders. BEWARE OF THE GARGOYLE instead of the dog.
Perhaps, on the other hand, they performed a role for the medieval mind similar to that of horror movies for the 20th-century mind. These films today, after all, are updated versions of the 19th-century ``Gothick'' novel - so called not entirely without accurate historical reason. We don't take horror movies quite seriously - they may make us gasp momentarily, but they are really a kind of ghastly humor.
Medieval ghouls and ghosts and hobgoblins and imps, perched menacingly high up on cathedral balconies in Paris or Reims, offer similar thrills and spills. Nor do we take them quite seriously.
To taste their potential for excitement, though, it's only necessary to read the final pages of Victor Hugo's ``Notre Dame of Paris'' - published in 1831 but set in 1482 - when the demented priest clutches for his life onto ``one of those fantastically carved waterspouts which bristle on Gothic buildings.''
Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell-ringer, stands above him, far too concerned with the fate of the gypsy, La Esmeralda, who hangs from the gibbet way below, to think of rescuing the fated and hated archdeacon.
``The archdeacon could feel the pipe slowly bending....''
One almost feels that Quasimodo was himself a chimera come to life in the melodramatic imagination of the novelist. Yet the intriguing thing is that the hunchback, so repulsively ugly, is a creature to be pitied and admired, something of a hero, rather than a horror.
Mankind's imagination has grown, to a degree, to see that physical ugliness can be a misleading cover for qualities and character warm and beautiful. A forbidding exterior may hide a heart of tenderness. A frog (even a singing stone frog) might turn into a prince.
So it could be with gargoyles and grotesques and chimeras. They may be vices personified - lust and avarice in animal form - fearsome warnings against sin. Or maybe not.
If they are, then why, in the 12th century, with new churches being built on every side, did St. Bernard of Clairvaux inveigh so heartily against ``these fantastic monsters ... these unclean monkeys ... these spotted tigers''? He doesn't sound as if he approves of them as useful didactic emblems, even for the ``brothers as they read'' in the monastic cloisters. He says instead: ``Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities we should at least regret what we have spent on them.''
He seems to have had a point. But he also hints that these carvings were - as Ruskin later said - considered ``delightful.'' He wrote: ``... on all sides there appears so rich and amazing a variety of forms that it is more delightful ... to spend the whole day in admiring these things, piece by piece, rather than in meditating on the Law Divine.'' He seems to have felt it was a sin to enjoy the costly inventiveness of these fantastic carvings; he didn't see them as warnings against sin.
Perhaps that's the simple truth of the matter. The monsters were entertainment. They may well be pagan folk memories. Who says, anyway, that the masons who actually built the churches and cathedrals ``to the glory of God'' weren't fairly earthy pagans themselves, a little bit bored with carving holy figures posed stiffly in hierarchical niches? A little away from the public eye - but still prominent enough to be seen - they wanted to stick to some of their old notions, and try their skill in carving fantastic rather than soberly static figures.
It's an intriguing footnote, perhaps, to mention that Ruskin's counterpart in 19th-century France, E.E. Viollet-le-Duc, also observed the Gothic delight in the ``fantastic and ludicrous.''
Not only was Viollet a practicing architect and a restorer, he was more than that - a re-creator of medieval buildings up and down France. Preservation was not enough for Viollet. He aimed to return a ruin, or a building in a bad state, to what his studies told him it would have looked like. This proved a fairly inventive business.
So when he came to the chimera and gargoyles of Notre Dame de Paris, which had fallen, some on bad times and some on the heads of people below, he went ahead merrily and remade them. So it seems that what one writer, as recently as 1969, calls ``the apotheosis, the Parnassus of the gargoyle,'' is, in reality, the fruit of the fantasy of a 19th-century architect and not reliable evidence of true historical Gothic art at all. (And Viollet - though perhaps not exactly a pagan - was certainly an agnostic.)
Yet such is the potency of the Gothic fantasy, even in this latter-day fabrication, that it could inspire the sympathy and command the fascination of more than one serious student of the Gothic.
Sacheverell Sitwell was moved by the ``strange population up there in the towers'' of Notre Dame to write (even though he concludes that they are ``of evil intent and beasts of prey'') a remarkable tribute to gargoyles as though what we see today would have been also seen in the Middle Ages:
``And probably the citizens of Paris, young and old, men and women alike, went to sleep on winter nights of wind and rain wondering more than once in a lifetime how the monsters were faring along the roof-line of Notre Dame. Whether they left their posts when all the lights of the city went out and crawled to a dark corner out of the rain or snow? But also, waking early on a summer morning if they stretched, still with hands or elbows on the parapets and sniffed the morning, in their stone nostrils, breathing out the airs and vapours of the night with, the city being so little across, a message of the green fields on the morning wind.''
And why shouldn't we have some sort of fellow-feeling for gargoyles and chimeras? Some of us, too - I speak for myself, I hope, as well as my friends - are really quite a lot more beautiful than we look.