“Mythical Albany: Photo-documenting the City’s Medieval-Style Stone Carvings – Gargoyles”
Dr. Ruth Ann SmalleyThis is the recap by Frank Robinson, of a presentation by Dr. Ruth Ann Smalley, at the March 13th, 2011 CDHS monthly meeting.
Dr. Ruth Ann Smalley is an educator, freelance writer, holistic wellness instructor, and author of a forthcoming children’s book. Her topic: “Mythical Albany: Photo-documenting the city’s medieval-style stone carvings – Gargoyles. Horrible Heads from Hell. Fantastic Sea Creatures . . . “
In general, these carvings date from about 1860 to 1914, emulating a style familiar for centuries in Europe. The artists were mostly anonymous, mostly from Italy, Germany, or Britain, and often itinerant.
We learned a lot of lingo. A gargoyle was originally conceived as a water spout, to carry rainwater away from building stonework [thus deriving from the French for “throat;” the same root as the word “gargle” – FSR]. Often they were grotesques, strange looking creatures, usually composites of real ones. Some particular types include the wyvern, a two-legged winged dragon, and the ubiquitous green man, a human made partly of foliage. One image with seemingly Japanese features Ms. Smalley called “the Samurai green man.”
Photographing them proved challenging, often highly dependent upon the lighting, the angle, etc., and often requiring a bit of climbing, many being difficult to see from street level. Ms. Smalley reported some reactions to her photo activities from passers-by: “Oh. Those ugly things.” And, “I’ve lived in this building for years, and never knew that was up there!”
On one occasion she tracked down, in a nursing home, a nonagenarian church historian, hoping to get some background on its gargoyles. But, shown pictures, the woman replied, “What are those doing there, that’s a church!” Many such carvings do hark back to pagan antecedents – even when decorating churches.
Another curiosity is “Misericords” – wood carvings found under seats in All Saints’ Cathedral’s choir stalls. These were originated in Belgium and were donated by Spencer Trask, the patron of Yaddo.
Many reptilian carvings seem influenced by London’s 1851 “Great Exhibition,” one of the earliest introductions of newly discovered dinosaurs to the general public. The whole aesthetic, particularly the “green men,” reflected an idea of humanity’s relation to the natural world, which Dr. Smalley speculated is being lost [strangely perhaps, given Darwinism’s confirmation of continuity between humanity and the rest of nature – FSR]. Meantime, gargoyles have also fallen victim to changing fashion, with the modern “international style” of architecture spurning such “gingerbread” ornateness. Another factor is that the labor involved in such work is no longer as cheap as it used to be.
Some might see sterility in the modern style; others might see beauty, of a different kind. But in any case we should not be insensible to the artistic creativity of our forebears. So next time you perambulate about town, look up. (But be careful not to trip.)
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