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Gargoyles and grotesques get their closeup

The art of gargoyles
The art of gargoyles 04:47

Gargoyles – those grimacing, gaping, grinning, mischievous creatures perched close to Heaven –  invite us, dare us, to raise our gaze. "This architecture is made to draw your eyes up this Gothic architecture," said Joe Alonso, head stonemason at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. "And then as your eyes are being drawn up, you're seeing gargoyles and grotesques. And, wow, look at that! Look at that! Hey, is that Darth Vader up there?"

It is Darth Vader up there!

A Medusa and Darth Vader peer down from the upper heights of the National Cathedral. CBS News

Crane your neck at the cathedral, or even take one of their gargoyle tours, and you might also see a wild boar, a turtle, a dragon, or one of the roughly 1,200 other roof dwellers.

One of Alonso's creations was his "girl," a Medusa.

"But you didn't look at her?" asked correspondent Faith Salie.

"No, we just put her up in place."

But many of the Medusa's neighbors, like Darth Vader, aren't really gargoyles…

"A gargoyle officially must spew water or be able to do so," said Janetta Rebold Benton, a professor of art history at Pace University in New York, who has written about these hair-raising hobgoblins.  "I describe them as glorified gutters. If you look like a gargoyle in some sort of a monstrous or fantastic way but you cannot spew water, you are officially a 'grotesque.'

"They're fascinating," said Benton. "And I think it goes along with the whole appeal of things that are just a little awful, a little bit frightening, a little bit creepy – the extreme edge of what we accept. And it's part of human nature, curiously."

A dragon perched on the National Cathedral. CBS News

The word gargoyle comes from the French gargouille, which means "to gargle." "And that is, of course, what a gargoyle does; it spits water from its throat," Benton said.

Ancient civilizations like the Greeks were carving water spitters over two thousand years ago, but Benton said gargoyles really came alive in the middle ages.

Besides water control, they've been said to ward off evil and to frighten passers-by into piety. Some even think of them as monstrous angels, created to delight God.

Carver Walter S. Arnold told Salie gargoyles have always stuck their necks out to push cultural boundaries. "I think the bishops knew that, if you didn't give us the outlet on the outside of the cathedral, we'd be sticking a caricature of the bishop behind the altar," he laughed. "So, they defined that you have to behave here, and you can talk about life and culture and society out there."

Carver Walter S. Arnold creating a new creature. CBS News

Arnold has carved dozens of gargoyles and grotesques for the National Cathedral, and for him, the joy of creating them lies in the whimsy they inspire.

"Most of what carvers do is much more formal," he said. "Whereas gargoyles, for me, are more like jazz. There's a concept and you can improvise and just kind of discover what's in the stone as I go along."

He often collaborated with sculptor Jay Hall Carpenter, who's designed more than a hundred of these creatures for the National Cathedral.  

One design that Carpenter and Arnold created together was called "The Crooked Politician." "He's tampering with the scales of justice," said Carpenter.

Pretty apt for a gargoyle that looks over Washington, D.C.!

This crooked politician gargoyle is right at home at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. CBS News

As we look up in wonder at these haunting, devilish, cheeky creatures, Janetta Rebold Benton suggested what we should consider as we gaze skyward: "Consider the fantastic. Consider the appeal of things that you cannot fully understand today, things that perhaps will ultimately have an explanation. And even if they don't, enjoy them just for the pleasure they convey."

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Story produced by Aria Shavelson.

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