Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Gargoyles of Mont Saint Michel

To celebrate this week's book launch of my latest novel, Quicksand, set partly at Mont Saint Michel, here's a closer look at the weather-worn gargoyles of Mont Saint Michel. 

Mont Saint Michel is built on an island off the coast of Normandy. It has been a monastery, a scriptorium, and a prison. Because of its strategic location surrounded by dangerous tides and quicksand, it's been a relatively secure fortress during periods of history that were anything but secure.

The hilly island off the northern coast of France in Normandy was transformed into Mont Saint Michel after a local bishop had a dream in the year 708. Saint Michael appeared to the St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, in a dream, and asked him to build a monastery. Legend says that Aubert thought it nothing more than a dream until Saint Michael returned in another dream -- and this time burned a hole in the bishop’s skull with the touch of his finger.

Building on a rocky hill rising out of the ocean was difficult, and several miracles were attributed to making the seemingly-impossible construction a success. The island rises out of the fog and is surrounded by the ocean during high tide. Until a causeway was built, visitors had to wait until low tide to reach the Mont. And to this day, people die in the waters surrounding the Mont, either by getting caught unawares in the dangerous tides or stepping into quicksand that's deceptively the same color as solid sand....

Looking up at the gargoyles on the Abbey tour

Weather-worn gargoyles visible from the cloisters

The Abbey's spire, with Saint Michael on top and dozens of gargoyles below


And on the steep and winding main street leading up to the Abbey, you can guy your very own gargoyle

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Gargoyle Definitions

What's the difference between a gargoyle and a grotesque? A chimera and a hunky punk? And what about a babewyn and a green man? Read on.



An architectural term for a carved figure serving as a water spout on a building. Though gargoyles are technically functional drainage spouts, the term is now more generally used to refer to all grotesques.

Commonly represented beasts are lions, dragons, men, and perhaps most common of all are strange unidentifiable beasts – one of the reasons they hold so much mystery. 


An ornamental figure not meant to function as a water spout. 


Refers more specifically to a mythological creature. (In other words, a gargoyle based on a person or a puppy would be less likely to be called a chimera.) 


A term from the Middle Ages to refer to both gargoyles and grotesques. 

Hunky Punk

A regional term from Somerset (south-west England) to refer to grotesques, especially squat-shaped ones that appear on churches.

Green Man

Commonly used as architectural ornaments on all sorts of secular buildings, these carvings are a face made of leaves or surrounded by them. 

Anthropomorphized building drainage spouts were first recorded in history in ancient Egypt. They reached the height of popularity in the Middle Ages on European cathedrals and churches, but are used on all types of buildings around the world and are still being carved to this day.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Gargoyles of Notre Dame Through a Modern Lens

The famous "thinker" gargoyle that sits high atop Notre Dame in Paris is the carving that inspired Dorian, the gargoyle character in The Accidental Alchemist. Even though I've climbed the 387 steps to the gallery of gargoyles many times, whenever I visit Paris I can't resist doing it once more.

Each time I visit Viollet-le-Duc's gargoyles up close, I try to capture their spirit in a different way. In addition to using regular print and digital cameras, I've take photos of these gargoyles with my lensbaby selective focus lens and with a Holga plastic camera. And the last time I visited, I used my cell phone. I never imagined those cellphone pictures would be some of my favorite images, but that's what happened. That day, a storm was approaching, and one of the Instagram filters perfectly rendered the ominous feeling of the storm clouds.