A new gargoyle of Pope Francis adorns a wall of the Cologne cathedral in Germany. Photo by Henning Schoon via Cologne Cathedral Instagram

 A Pope Francis gargoyle now watches over Cologne cathedral  

PARIS (RNS) — It took about a week for visitors to the massive Catholic cathedral in Cologne, Germany, to notice a small addition to its ornate Gothic entrance — a carved stone figure of Pope Francis leaning forward like a gargoyle.

The new gargoyle is smiling and there’s no water spouting out of his mouth, so it doesn’t resemble the ghoulish medieval drains jutting out from famous old cathedrals around Europe. Instead, the figure is a small decoration, like many other little statues in nooks and crannies all around the building.

Germany’s largest Gothic church, which dominates the skyline of the fun-loving city along the Rhine River, has a tradition of carving surprising statues and symbols to adorn its architecture.

On its roof, a vast space not visible from the large square down below, statues of John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, Charles de Gaulle and Harold Macmillan huddle in a summit meeting. Another group of statues shows a parade for Carnival, the boisterous street party the city throws every year just before Lent.

The stone carvings include a buxom Tanzmariechen, one of the high-kicking women dancers at Carnival parties, a famous local boxer, several soccer players and even the billy goat mascot of the local team.

“Have you found it yet? Pope Francis is at Cologne cathedral!” the cathedral asked on its official Facebook page, above a picture of the stone figure of the pope.

“We immortalized Pope Francis in the Cologne cathedral about a week ago,” the cathedral’s master builder, Peter ssenich, told the local newspaper Express in late October. “It’s only a decoration; there’s no water coming out like a real gargoyle.”

The sculpture shows the Argentine-born pope smiling at passers-by with his right hand ready to greet them. It’s attached to a stone canopy over a large statue of the Bible’s King Solomon, like a little bird perched over his shoulder to observe the crowd.

The cathedral has a staff of about 100 artisans to regularly refurbish its artworks, including dozens of stonemasons who make replacement copies of outside statues and structures worn down by years of rain, snow and smog.

They have so many repairs to make that local legend says the world will end the day work on the cathedral stops. Construction on the massive building began in 1248, was halted in 1473 and finally finished in 1880.

Gothic cathedrals across Europe have always had graphic statues and paintings showing Bible scenes, saints or images of both heaven and hell.

Devils lead sinners away in chains, bottom right, above an entrance at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. RNS photo by Tom Heneghan

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In Paris, Notre Dame boasts a carved stone scene of the Last Judgment over its main entrance that shows grinning devils hauling sinners off to hell in a chain gang. Among their catch are a rich man, a bishop and a king.

On the south portal of the cathedral in Chartres, a devil carries off a naked prostitute on his back, her long hair flowing down to the ground.

Visitors inspecting the wooden choir stalls in front of the main altar in some cathedrals can find scenes of everyday life attached to the underside of the seats.

When the hinged seats are flipped up, they reveal carvings known as “misericords” (mercy seats) showing everything from angels and flowers to monsters, men at work or people engaged in sex.

Cologne cathedral’s spokesman, Matthias Deml, said the building’s northern portal was bombed during World War II and stonemasons repairing it started carving all sorts of small statues to place on the roof, where they could not be seen from below.

“From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, most of the decorations depicted plants, especially leaves,” he told a local radio station. “After the war, the restoration work got more creative … the masons had more leeway and they began to make these statues.”

Some masons have put their own faces on statues.

One master builder was immortalized as a man chatting on his cell phone. Although the cathedral has stopped the proliferation of secular statues, Francis’ popularity was a good excuse to make an exception for a pope.

“About 20,000 visitors stream into the cathedral daily through the main entrance on the western facade,” the local daily Express wrote when it discovered the new statue. “Now they have to be careful — Pope Francis sees everyone who goes in and comes out.”

Not everybody seems pleased with the new statue.

Novus Ordo Watch, a staunchly traditionalist Catholic blog, called it “grotesque” and noted the cathedral also had statues of soccer players, Carnival revelers and former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

"Indeed, Francis fits right in,” it commented disapprovingly.


  1. That confirms it, then. At least, architecturally.

    If Gargoyle = EVIL
    Then “A Pope Francis Gargoyle” = ????
    So, too, then, Pope Francis = ????

    “The Catholic Church’s primary use of the gargoyle was to illustrate EVIL. The church wanted to convey a realistic image of the possibility of a damned afterlife. The Gothic idea was one of pain and suffering and the buildings loomed over the citizens in a romantically dramatic cloud. The gargoyles are represented by demons and monsters to insinuate safety and sanctity inside of the cathedral.”

    Source: AESU, “The Gargoyles of Notre Dame”.

  2. If ya just gotta have a gargoyle on a building (never minding why?), that’s the kind to have.

  3. Umm, Cologne Cathedral, this mess honestly ain’t working.

  4. Darth Vader is a gargoyle on the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

  5. Actually, since there’s no water spout, it’s technically a grotesque, not a gargoyle. That’s why Novus Ordo Watch used the word “grotesque” — because that’s the name for a pseudo-gargoyle that doesn’t spout water.

  6. All it confirms is that the powers that be at the Cologne Cathedral have a sense of humor. Chill out.

  7. “Chill out”?! I dare you to tell that to “Novus Ordo Watch”, whose view I support is that “Francis fits right in” with the rest of the “grotesque” – “soccer players, Carnival revelers and … Nikita Khrushchev”!

    Until then I won’t “chill out”!

  8. The proper architectural term for a gargoyle which is not a water-spout is a “grotesque”.
    And what a grotesque occupant of the Chair of St Peter we have.

  9. OK get hot under the collar, then. It won’t change anything until the next conclave, when we will probably get Pope Judas mark 2.

  10. Umm, my previous post was the “friendly, no H8, laid-back, co-religious ally” assessment. Nothing “anti” about it.

    But if I were a dedicated card-carrying Catholic, I would have said something snarky about how the Cologne Cathedral photograph above, actually makes Pope Francis look like a crawling, gravity-defying Creepy Clown from some ancient Friday Fright Night movie (perhaps the one with the red balloons).

    Then I would have called for Francis’s Swiss Guards to borrow a tank from some nearby NATO facility, blow up the entire Cologne Cathedral, and then order church officials to re-build it from scratch, with no more gothic oddball mess.

  11. Not exactly “a water-spout … gargoyle” (like watching Rocky and all the sequels in an entire day without ever going to the WC upon the call of Mother Nature, which never sounded off), but just “a grotesque … [indwelt by the] ‘false prophet’ or ‘lamb that speaks like a dragon’ … [whom] the ‘St Gallen Mafia’ boasted that they got … elected”?!

    Perish the thought, I mean, Sounds about right.

    Source: Adrian Johnson, Disqus, 11 hours ago and 12 hours ago.

  12. Kevin Eckstrom (Chief Communications Officer, Washington National Cathedral): “Vader isn’t just a grotesque – he’s an invitation to experience the wonder and whimsy of the building. There’s something here for everyone. We do theology here at the Cathedral, and Lord Vader also tells the story of loss, sin, and redemption – and that’s the business we’re in. From our carvings to our stained-glass windows to fanciful ironwork, our artistic treasures draw people inward, and our architecture points people upward, a reminder in stone and glass that there’s something much bigger – and more important – than ourselves.”

    David Allen: (What Kevin said.)

    Source: Summer Whitford, “Why Is Darth Vader’s Bust on Washington National Cathedral?”, August 1, 2017.

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