Monday, September 10, 2012

Trip to England, Part 10: Gargoyles, Grotesques, and Grimaces, Oh My!

Many of those ancient and imposing piles of brick and stone and terracotta over there in the UK are wildly embellished with all manner of creatures as well as human faces. Quite a few of them stare menacingly while others gaze benignly. Plenty of them seem self-absorbed or gaze off at something we can't see. And a few make me think of Bill the Cat, with eyeballs rotating in two directions at once and tongue lolling crazily.

This lion growling from a flint-studded surface is part of St. James' Church, a 14th-century church in Dengie next door to a house where my husband's maternal grandparents once lived. It's a lovely, serene spot, with roses tumbling out of their beds and over walls in the churchyard.


If St. James's embodies all the charm and serenity of a small village church, the great cathedral in Wells is the ultimate in splendor and awe.



(I love how Wells Cathedral's website declares boldly that it is "Perhaps the most beautiful of the great English cathedrals." That demurring little "perhaps"...so polite, so self-effacing, so British! If it were here in the states, it would be advertised as "the most beautiful in the world." And would probably have advertising on it.)

Wells Cathedral dates back to 1175 A.D. and is heavily populated with statues and images of saints, angels, and the like. Enigmatic people ponder unseen horizons...


 ...while others nobly endure 900-plus years of having a grinning predator of some sort breathing in their hair.


This grumpy little Seussian creature glowers randomly from a graceful wall:


The beautiful Chapter Room, with its vaulted ceiling made of luminescent, pearly stone, is incongruously pocked with faces that grin and gurn. This fellow seems to be mocking some stately decision made by the canons at a long-ago meeting.

Our favorite stony stares, however, belonged to the creatures that crouch on, crawl over, and climb up the walls of the Natural History Museum in London. This stunning building, which dates back to 1881, was praised as "the animal’s Westminster Abbey" when it opened, and is still lauded as a cathedral to Nature. (Though not everybody hanging around in 1881 was disposed to praise it; one curmudgeon harrumphed that the building was "ornamented – if so it may be termed – both externally and internally with incorrect and grotesque representations of animals."
 

Along its western wall perch existing species; the eastern wall boasts extinct creatures, such as this marvelous pterodactyl who looks like he just stepped out of a 1950s-era roadside dinosaur park in Utah:


He keeps company with the Great Paleotherium, who sounds as if he should be worshipped. He has a rather hawkish look about him, but apparently a Great Paleotherium was nothing more than an early hoofed mammal, a sort of small, rubber-nosed horse.


Neither one seems to have anything to fear from the carved creatures cavorting nearby: a fairly fierce fish...


...and a lizard with a hearty appetite:


Indoors, the bestiary's a bit more well behaved. There are animals  everywhere you look, tucked atop columns and in beds of terracotta leaves and blossoms.


All told, 78 monkeys clamber up the arches in the Central Hall.


I can't help but think this ladder of monkeys winks a bit at the ladder of angels ascending to heaven--the "Jacob's Ladder" theme--such as the ones stretching up the front of Bath Abbey:


The Abbey, the Pump Room, and the Roman Baths dominate Bath Abbey Square. But from some viewpoints in the Baths, you can glimpse carved animals that look like ones you might see on a carousel from the late 1800s:

An amused lioness...
...a grumpy donkey...
..and a satisfied bear.