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Sep 282013

The Looming Beasts, Grotesques and Other Monsters of Oxford

Around the buildings of Pembroke, Merton and Magdalen Colleges in Oxford, Professor Tolkien worked, walked and wandered the gardens surrounding.

It does not take a great leap of the imagination to envision Tolkien’s flights of fancy when looking up at the Gargoyles of Oxford.

If you look closely at the Gargoyles that adorn the Magdalen College buildings, one can see goblins, orcs, wargs and dragons! Not to mention the occasional Ringwraith or Black Númenórean!

As part of our ongoing series “Tolkien’s Journey to Middle-earth” we have thought to look upon the Gargoyles of Oxford! In putting together this story of the Gargoyles of Oxford we referenced content from Wikipedia and the writings Ethan Gilsdoft Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tolkien spent most of his adult life and literary career in and around the colleges & buildings at Oxford.

In walking around Oxford and the Magdalen Tower, you can’t help but notice the well-preserved masonry on these buildings! Oxford has roots reaching into the eleventh century and Magdalen Tower is one of the oldest parts of Magdalen College, Oxford, situated directly on High Street. Built of stone that dates back to 1492, when the foundation stone was laid in place, its bells were hung in 1505, and the full tower completed by 1509. Magdalen Tower is an important element of the Oxford skyline. At 144 feet (44 m) high, it represents the tallest building in Oxford. It dominates the eastern entrance to the city, towering over Magdalen Bridge and with good views from the Botanic Garden opposite.

The town of Oxford grew along with the with the university. However, residents weren’t always synonymous with scholars, nor were the streets always as calm as they appear now. Historically their was conflict between the university in the town. This ever growing conflict finally led to bloodshed and rioting during the thirteenth-century. As a result of the bloody rioting, private dormitories. were built and thus, the fortress-like structure with strong block walls and iron gates to guard students in each of the 39 independent colleges that make up Oxford University. The term “ivory tower” took on new meaning.

Up and down the tower, as well as along the buildings surrounding it, are row upon row of beastly faces looking down upon the unwary traveler.

Gargoyle: (word origin: Old French [15th century] gargouille, or ‘throat’)

Gargoyles – grotesquely carved heads of animal or human origin, with or without bodies – originally had a practical use as waterspouts (generally) on sacred buildings, throwing rainwater clear of walls. They were also used as educational devices for a largely illiterate population, and were believed to ward off evil spirits with their own grotesqueness. One of the earliest recorded gargoyles is a Classical Greek lion mask on the Acropolis in Athens dating from the 4th century BC.

Gargoyles later became more ornamental in character and assumed many forms – often humorous and very inventive. Most were carved between the 10th and 15th centuries in Western Europe.

Religious Opposition to Grotesque Statuary

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, living in 12th-century France, made some interesting (and not wholly complimentary) observations on the gargoyle carvings he saw around him:

“What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters under the very eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, strange savage lions and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man? 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.”

You can detect the answer in Pope Gregory’s instructions to St. Augustine regarding the conversion of the pagan peoples to Christianity:

“Destroy the idol. Purify the temples with holy water. Set relics there, and let them become temples of the true God. So the people will have no need to change their place of concourse, and, where of old they were wont to sacrifice cattle to demons, thither let them continue to resort on the day of the saint to where the Church is dedicated, and slay their beasts, no longer as a sacrifice but for social meal in honor of Him whom they now worship.”

Clairvaux thought the monks to be distracted by gargoyles. But critics like Clairvaux were in the minority. Most of the clergy was convinced of the use or at least “beauty” of gargoyles and grotesques.

It seems, that in Gothic grotesque sculpture most depictions were connected with the temptations, and with sins and sinners. After all, a warning can be interpreted into almost all gargoyles and grotesques. But for all this, one should never forget that with gargoyles everything is possible: they could also be simple devices for drainage, allowing the sculptors to have a little fun, to caricature their contemporaries. Sometimes it even seems as if there was a competition to create the most implausible gargoyle. Today this, or a competition with a similar aim, is more certainly the case. (Benton 122) So the popularity of gargoyles never really declined. Did they in medieval times maybe frighten the people, today they amuse them.

Grotesques and Other Monsters

Grotesques are the diverse beasts, hybrid creatures and fantasy scenes involving animals and humans found in various forms of Gothic art.

The ultimate source of much of this imagery is in Roman art, some themes came from the combat scenes between men and beast used in the sculpture and decorative initials of the Romanesque period. The late thirteenth and the fourteenth century saw an unprecedented elaboration of this type of fantasy subject, in the borders of manuscripts, and in decorative sculpture and woodwork – especially misericords”, small ledge-like projections on the other side of choir stall seats to give support when long standing was required. Grotesques also frequently appeared on roof bosses, carved projections of stone or wood placed at the intersections of ribs in vaults. After the erection of the Canterbury Cathedral in the thirteenth century they became a usual architectural device.

In difference to gargoyles, grotesques serve no architectural but purely ornamental functions. Sometimes – and with the very same meaning – also called chimera, their other functions may be similar to those of the gargoyles. The placing of grotesques, obviously secular and even occasionally erotic, in a religious context, is a mixture very characteristic of the later Middle Ages. The popularity of grotesques declined after ca. 1350, though they still occur in the fifteenth century, particularly in sculpture and woodcarving. At that time they were usually called babewyneries or babewyns  (from Italian babunio ‘baboon’), because predominant in many animal scenes were monkeys and apes.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien lived in and around Oxford for some 50 years.

Tolkien resided in Oxford as a student first from 1911-15.  After fighting in and suffering through WWI, he then took up the role of tutor and staff member of the New English Dictionary, from 1917-19.  Later, he assumed a position as a professor of medieval languages and literature from 1925-59 in the Collages of Pembroke and Merton. Aside from spending some retirement years in the suburbs and the seaside town of Bournemouth, Tolkien haunted Oxford nearly his entire adult life.

It’s not hard to imagine Tolkien on his way to talk with Lewis at Magdalene College and looking up at all of these dark creatures looming over him along the edges of the buildings. I can certainly see the origins of dragons, goblins, orcs, wargs and trolls in these Gargoyles and Grotesques that hung off the sires of the buildings at oxford. I can’t believe the ugly faces peering down at him from on high did not fire his imagination for the dark creatures of middle-earth.

You can even see perhaps the influence they might have had C. S. Lewis, and his creatures in Narnia and even his stories in space.

There have always been ghost stories and legends about what happens to students of the college who seriously misbehaved. One may well have noticed for instance, that a student who had been caught cheating might suddenly disappear… and if you looked closely at the line of grotesque faces adorning the walls of Magdalene College, you might believe there is a new one…  one you have never seen before, but who oddly resembles the cheating student! Could it be?

Look over these collected images of the dark and beautiful Gargoyles and Grotesques that Adorne Magdalene College and imagine how Professor Tolkien would have seen them himself.

Sources : Wikipedia and the writings Ethan Gilsdoft Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


 September 28, 2013  Posted by at 12:26 pm

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