- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

Darth Vader is here. So are snakes and rabbits, angels and monsters. They are among the 112 gargoyles and 400 grotesques carved around the roof of Washington National Cathedral in Northwest. From April through October, visitors can learn all about the limestone carvings on the cathedral’s gargoyle tour.

The gargoyle tour is a popular attraction at the cathedral. On a glorious spring afternoon recently, the tour’s lecture room was standing room only.

“I think gargoyles are popular because they are fun,” says Jacqueline Marsh, a cathedral docent who leads the gargoyle tours.

To start the tour, Mrs. Marsh offers a little lesson in history and architecture. Gargoyles jut out about two feet from the roofline. They are attached to the water system and act as downspouts to keep water away from the building during a hard rain. Grotesques are smaller statues placed on the pitch of the smaller roofs around the cathedral. They also serve the purpose of breaking up water, but the water runs over them, not through them, Mrs. Marsh explains.

Gargoyles date back to the 13th century, but no one knows exactly why carved creatures began showing up on Europe’s cathedrals, Mrs. Marsh says. Her presentation offers more than a dozen theories, however. Among them: to scare evil from inside the church; to scare people into behaving themselves; to show images of man’s dreams; as pure humor and a way to make fun of ourselves; or simply as a form of medieval entertainment.

“People back then did not have much to amuse them,” Mrs. Marsh says. “Gargoyles might have been there for entertainment. It is probably a combination of some or all of the theories. But they tell us something about people in Middle Ages: They were artistic, desired God’s protection, and religion was important to them.”

Moving forward a few centuries, the history of the National Cathedral is a big part of the tour presentation. The installation of the gargoyles took almost as long as the 83 years it took to complete the building; the last gargoyle was put in place in 1987. Some of the cathedral’s gargoyles were designed by locals who entered contests (which is how Darth Vader, the Star Wars villain, got a place in 1985). Some of the others were made by carver Jay Hall Carpenter, who started his craft while a student at St. Alban’s School on the grounds of the cathedral.

The tour’s slide show is the best way to see the cathedral’s gargoyles and grotesques, ranging from the whimsical to the scary, up close. Once visitors know what they are looking for, they can circle the cathedral with binoculars to get another look.

Among the whimsical are many animals, including a monkey, a warthog, a camel and elephants. There are likenesses of many dogs, including the shaggy Kiddo, who belonged to one of the cathedral’s bishops. There are an angel with a ukulele and an angel playing the bongos. There are teeth taking a bite out of the limestone, and a “yuppie” gargoyle with a tie and briefcase.

The scary gargoyles include a rabbit being squeezed by a snake, which Mrs. Marsh says represents innocence being squeezed by evil. There is a charging wild boar. A snake crawling through a skull, a dragon, and several just plain ugly monsters all can be found. One of the ugliest is above the Cathedral Museum Store. It is a “crocogator,” a combination alligator and crocodile.

After the slide show, the tour stops in a room about six stories high. Visitors can go out on a veranda, where they can get a terrific view of some of the gargoyles. On a clear day, an impressive view of the District also can be enjoyed.

“I have been [to the cathedral] before,” says Joy Kaufmann, a tourist from Chicago, “but it is interesting to get this different perspective.”

The 90-minute tour concludes with a trek around the grounds, where visitors can peer into the carver’s cottage and look up to the cathedral’s spires with new gargoyle knowledge.

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