Creature Features

Creature Features

Yale has gaggles of gargoyles—on 34 buildings, in hundreds of styles, peering over doorways, crouched on windowsills, jumping out of unexpected places, giving earthly structures a touch of the fantastical.

Mathew Duman is a self-made expert on them. Duman’s interest took flight over a decade ago after he noticed a few of the carved figures during a walk around Yale’s campus. He found the sculptures “darkly humorous” and started searching them out in earnest.

Soon he was taking pictures of these “grotesques,” hundreds in fact, and buying better cameras with longer lenses to capture the ones perched at great heights. He decided early on to do all his photographs in black and white, “to emphasize the shape and form of the grotesques, since that is what gives them their unique character.”

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A longtime photographer and graphic designer for the Knights of Columbus, Duman still found time to publish An Education in the Grotesque: The Gargoyles of Yale University on his own label, MDGD Publishing, in 2011. The book’s 189 pages are filled with information and photos of Yale’s Collegiate Gothic-style architecture, which was popular at eastern-seaboard schools from the late 1800s to the 1930s. Such buildings were designed to look hundreds of years old and to reinforce a desirable sense of tradition without the usual generations-long wait.

Gargoyles have a funny way of embedding those impressions into our subconscious. Their weathered faces “project a personality on the lumps of masonry or granite stone,” Duman says, adding that they also “project a school spirit.” He says he likes them best when icicles are hanging from their chins and noses.

“Grotesques” can be people or animals, representing the real or the fictitious, of which gargoyles are a subset. They were originally defined not by form so much as by function: to channel rain water off of roofs, usually through stony mouths. It’s no coincidence that “gargoyle” sounds an awful lot like “gargle;” both descend from the French word for “throat,” gorge.

Some of Duman’s favorites around campus include a Native American armed with bow and arrow, locked in combat with a Pilgrim wielding a blunderbuss; an executioner at the law school with a hatchet in one hand and a boxed head in the other; a line of lawyers followed by a snail, commenting on the pace of the justice system; and a library student who has put his books aside in favor of a headset and a radio.

Other highlights include the mythological creature “the yale,” which resembles an antelope. It turns out yales follow Yalies all over Yale, their antlers protruding from roof tops and window ledges. Some have spots, while others resemble ponies with horns, and there are even some with vicious-looking antlers that swivel.

Duman has also spotted bulldogs in judge’s robes, a man with a bird on his head, a platter of roast turkey, wild boars, monkeys, a lawyer with the head of a mule, a cleaning woman with a dust pan and even Eskimos and mermaids. Clearly, a lot of fun was had dreaming these up.

One of those dreamers was architect James Gamble Rogers. A graduate of Yale, he was the designer of choice for the Harkness family, which donated the funds to erect twenty Yale buildings, including the iconic and wondrously gothic Harkness Tower.

If you have a dark and ironic sense of humor and a decent set of peepers, or, even better, a camera with a telephoto lens, walk around Yale and goggle at the ’goyles. You may just find them staring back at you.

An Education in the Grotesque: The Gargoyles of Yale University
by Mathew Duman

Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Images 1 and 3-4 photographed by Mathew Duman. Image 2, featuring Mathew Duman, photographed by Donald Duman, Jr. This lightly updated story was originally published on October 30, 2013.

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