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Notre Dame gargoyle  

Gargoyles - grotesquely carved heads of animal or human origin - 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 famous gargoyles high up on Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

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.

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."