Showing posts with label Architecture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Architecture. Show all posts

Saturday 19 October 2013



Halloween will soon be upon us and we will be mercilessly bombarded with all that is dark and scary. This is the time when ugly is beautiful and fear mongering is the norm. My thoughts turn therefore to a varied yet common motif donning mainly historical buildings of most western metropolises, Toronto being no exception. Blissfully unaware we all go about our daily business under the protective gazes of grotesque gargoyles.

Gargoyles are actually the good guys for they are said to frighten off and protect those structures, old buildings or churches from any evil, harmful spirits.

About AD 631-641, a colourful French legend sprang up about St. Romanus (“Romain”). In this the former chancellor of the Merovingian king Clotaire II who was made bishop of Rouen, recounted the tale of how he’d delivered the country around Rouen from a diabolical monster called Gargouille or Goji.

Rouen-gargoyles courtesy of Jon Marc & Mary Carol's Ex-pat adventures

The description of La Gargouille pegged him to be a typical dragon, with bat like wings, long neck, and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth.  At that time this dragon had engendered much fear and perpetrated much destruction with its fiery breath. Spouting water, he supposedly devoured men and ships whole. Each year, the residents of Rouen were forced to placate Gargouille with an offering of a victim, usually a criminal, though it was said that the dragon much preferred maidens.  St. Romanus promised to deliver the townspeople from this terrible danger and in recompense they would all be baptized and later construct a church. 

rouen-cathedral-gargoyle by ShironekoEuro

It is natural to have multiple versions of such a popular fable: In one scenario, St. Romanus purportedly subdued the creature using a crucifix and led the then docile beast back to town on a leash made from his priest’s robe. In another version St. Romanus captured the beast with the help of the only volunteer, a condemned man.

In both cases the monster was led back to Rouen and burned, but only partially. You see the head and neck, being tempered by its own fiery breath, could not be incinerated. Undaunted, the head of Gargouille was still utilized for protection and was promptly mounted on the wall of the newly built church to scare off evil spirits.

Since then, in commemoration of St. Romain, the Archbishops of Rouen were granted the right to set a prisoner free on the day that the reliquary of the saint was carried in procession.

During the 12th century when gargoyles were manifest in Europe the medieval world already held the view that many creatures exhibited varied mystical powers and several animals were privileged by being anthropomorphized, (that is to say, human qualities ascribed to them). 

The Roman Catholic Church, by then an influential entity, seizing this opportunity, utilized these images to convey certain ideas to the illiterate populous and also to convert pagans to Catholicism.

Gargoyles were viewed in two ways by the church; the primary use was to convey the concept of evil through the form of the gargoyle. Some medieval clergy viewed gargoyles as a form of idolatry, for example, in the 12th century St. Bernard of Clairvaux was famous for speaking out against gargoyles. Also gargoyles were said to scare evil spirits away from the structure, thereby reassuring the congregants that their church was a safe haven from evil spirits.

On the practical side, Gargoyles serve another vital purpose in architecture. Usually an elongated, granite beast with a spout, was designed to direct the flow of rainwater off of the roof. A trough, cut in the back of the gargoyle (the length of the gargoyle determines how far water is thrown from the wall) directed rainwater to exit through the open mouth. Ingeniously therefore, the damaging rainwater was also steered away from the masonry walls and the mortar between to prevent erosion.

Gargoyles had their humble beginnings in the form of fountainheads. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans fancied these animal configured waterspouts. The term gargoyle was most often applied to medieval work, but throughout history some means of water diversion, when not conveyed in gutters, were adopted. In ancient Egyptian architecture, gargoyles showed little variation, typically carved in the form of a lion's head. Similar lion-mouthed water spouts were also seen on Greek temples, modeled in the marble or terracotta cymatium of the cornice.

Many medieval cathedrals included gargoyles and chimeras. Although most had grotesque features, over the years the term gargoyle had come to include all types of images. Some gargoyles were depicted as monks, or as combinations of real animals and people, many of which were humorous. Unusual animal/human hybrids, or chimeras, did not act as rainspouts and are more properly called grotesques. They served more as ornamentation, but are now synonymous with gargoyles.

Both ornamented and unornamented water spouts projecting from roofs at parapet level were a common device used to shed rainwater from buildings until the early eighteenth century. After that time more and more buildings installed drainpipes to carry the water from the roof gutters to the ground and only very few buildings using gargoyles were constructed. This was because some people found them frightening and sometimes heavy ones were eroded and fell off, causing damage.

In 1724, the London Building Act passed by the Parliament of Great Britain made the use of downpipes compulsory on all new construction spelling the general demise of Gargoyles and relegating them to place in history and fable.

Still Gargoyles are popular as ornamentation on distinctively styled modern buildings. There they not only live but also thrive, frightening and fuelling the imaginations of new generations.

The End

Sunday 8 July 2012

Taming the Mighty Dragon

Many cultures viewed the Dragon as a benevolent being, especially in the East where they held the belief that mighty Dragons once ruled the rivers, lakes, seas and skies. Dragons were well respected and even worshiped, especially in the agrarian settlements, for the welfare of men depended on the kindness of these supreme entities. The quantity of folklore that was spanned from their rich imagination has delighted generations of children.

In ancient times it was the province of the immortals to intercede on behalf of humanity with the raw power of nature symbolized by the Water Dragon.

Once upon a time in ancient India the people of a small kingdom, being incited by a demon, went on a rampage against the Buddhists and their monasteries. In the mayhem of destruction, some even stooped to steal the Buddhist sutras.

The Dragon King of the undersea, outraged by the unruly behavior of these humans, punished them all, the innocent as well as the guilty, by flooding their entire kingdom. As he deemed them most unworthy of benefiting from the wisdom within the holy writings, he took custody of the sutras and stored them in his palace.

In time the repentant people, having suffered so long, wanted the sutras back but nothing would sway the Dragon King’s resolve.  It took an extraordinary being, Nantimitolo, to subdue the dragon guard and restore the sutras back to earth. Hence he became a Buddhist immortal: the Dragon Taming Lohan.

In modern times we are still entertained by accounts of Dragons in various visual and literary forms but we have also learned to harness falling water, the most powerful of the dwelling places of Dragons, to benefit mankind in yet another way: for what would man do today without the use of electricity?

These pictures tell the story of one such mighty waterfall, its might and how it has been tamed by mere mortals:

 Posted by Bo and Steve Caunce
The End.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

The Nine Dragon Wall

The Nine Dragon Wall

The first Ming Emperor of China declared that the five-taloned Dragon would be the symbol of only the Emperor with the four-clawed Dragon reserved for the Imperial Nobility and certain Officials of high rank, and the three-toed Dragon left for use by the general public and lower Officials. Other nations under Chinese suzerainty were directed to use only the lesser Dragons as well. Misuse of the yellow five-taloned Dragon was treason and resulted in the sure death of the offender and his entire clan.
The number nine is considered auspicious because it is the highest single digit number, and has connotations of extended time. Dragons were also associated with the number nine, as there were nine forms of Dragon and nine offspring of the Dragon King. Therefore it was only natural that nine Dragons became the symbol of the Emperor and his immediate court. The Emperor wore robes with nine Dragons on them (with one Dragon hidden from general view) and his Officials wore nine Dragon robes under a surcoat.

Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City:

The Architectural symbol of the Emperor’s power was the Nine Dragon Wall, and many of these walls were built in Imperial compounds throughout China. The three most famous are the wall in the Forbidden City, constructed in 1772 for the Emperor QuinLong, the wall in Beihai Park, and the Nine Dragon Wall in Datong.
Nine Dragon Wall in Beihai Park, built in 1756:

Luckily, for those of us who do not live in China, there is a Nine Dragon Wall in North America in the City of Mississauga just outside of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The Nine Dragon Wall in Mississauga, Ontario:

This wall, in many ways similar to the one in Beihai Park, is made of seven-coloured ceramic tile, and depicts nine five-taloned Dragons. It, too, is 27 meters long and 5 meters high, smaller than the Forbidden City wall.  We are very fortunate that this wall has been built so near to us so we can enjoy it in its entirety, even getting up right next to the ceramics.

The Nine Sons of the Dragon King (with no relation to the images on the wall) are:

Chiwen: seen on top of things. If you look at the roof-ridge of a building, his image is often carved there so he can gaze into the distance and provide early warning.

Baxia: found near water. His image will be carved on bridges and arches leading to piers so that he can take a swim when he likes and protect the traveler from the water.
Pulao: fond of his own voice and likes to roar, so his image is carved on bells.
Bixi: actually has a tortoise shape, but is considered to be one of the dragon legends. The Bixi is an excellent pack-animal whose image appears on panniers. Bixi are represented on the sides of grave-monuments and are frequently carved as the base for important memorials.
Qiuniu: loves music and adorns bridge of stringed musical instruments.
Suanni: fond of smoke and fire, so he twines up the legs of incense-burners. Suanni, who like to sit don, are represented upon the bases of Buddhist idols under the Buddha's or Bodhisatvas' feet.
Jiaotu: can keep his mouth shut like a clam. He appears as either a conch spiral shape or a clamshell shape. He is found on door lintels, front doors, and major entryways. He guards your peace and privacy.

Haoxian: a reckless and adventurous dragon whose image can be found decorating the eaves of palaces.
Yazi:  brave and belligerent, he can be found engraved on the handles of knives and the hilts of swords.

Map of the Mississauga Chinese Centre:

View Larger Map
If you can possibly do it, go to the Mississauga Chinese Centre and visit the Nine Dragon Wall. You will find it very enjoyable. Don't forget to take your camera.

Mississauga Dragon Wall Photos by Bo Caunce