An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 23, 2010

Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre Dame

Michael Camille. The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Janice Mann (

With the untimely death of Michael Camille in 2002, the history of medieval art lost one of its most astute and original interpreters.  His scholarship as a whole is erudite without being dulled by excessive detail and informed by critical theory without being obfuscating.  Unlike that of many postmodern art historians, Camille’s focus never strays too far from the images and the way they communicate their meaning to inform life in the past and now. He came to scholarship at a moment when new epistemologies brought to the fore by French critical theorists such as Foucault were beginning to displace restrictive modern, putatively objective intellectual practices in art history and other disciplines, creating a kind of openness, optimism, and excitement in the field.  He introduced his students and readers to a new, exciting view of medieval ages by bringing the marginal into the mainstream, claiming equality between the carnal and the spiritual, and elevating the commonplace to the level of the elite.

The broad themes of Camille’s earlier works – the instability of identity, the significance of the marginal space as a site of extraordinary and subversive creativity, the unassailable link between the medieval and the modern – are explored again in his last book, The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, published posthumously in 2009.  This lavishly illustrated book is divided into two parts. Part one examines the creation of the famous chimeras of Notre-Dame de Paris during the restoration of the cathedral executed during the turbulent years between 1843 and 1864 by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptist Lassus. The second part explores the afterlife of these medievalizing sculptures over the last 150 years and how they were incorporated into the work of artists as varied as the photographer Charles Nègre and the cartoonist Walt Disney.

The section of the book that explores the restoration of Notre-Dame is remarkable for the breadth of the material Camille covers in pursuit of learning how Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc conceived the fifty-four chimeras that still decorate the cathedral’s balustrade today. These snarling and shrieking creatures that gaze attentively with wide-eyed stares over the city of Paris from above may have an affinity with medieval sculpture, but they are the product of a 19th-century imagination according to Camille.  Consulting the Journal des travaux, a day-by-day record of the work; drawings by Lassus and by Viollet-le-Duc, 14 of which were newly discovered by Camille; personal correspondence, various reports, and Viollet-le-Duc’s published works, Camille traces the history of the restoration from proposal to finish.  He gives comprehensiveness to this history by emphasizing not just the roles of the well-known architects, clergy, and government officials but also the contributions of the carvers and masons who executed their ideas in stone.  In particular, Camille rescues Victor Joseph Pyanet, who carved the chimeras from Lassus’s and Viollet-le-Duc’s drawings, from obscurity.  Prior to Camille, most authors have automatically attributed the chimeras to Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Duchaume, who was the supervisor of the sculptors’ workshop.

In the first half of the book Camille also traces how the romantic fiction of Victor Hugo shaped the chimeras.  He sees them as the “direct descendents” of the monstrosity of Hugo’s Quasimodo and credits Notre-Dame de Paris with establishing the cathedral’s balustrade and towers as a site of spectacle and as a vantage point for the panorama of Parisian life observed below.  Camille links the creation of the best-known of all the chimeras, the pensive demon or le stryge, to Hugo’s interest in the devil.  For Hugo, as for the historian Jules Michelet, Satan was a symbol of human freedom, “negative but creative and productive.”  The pensive demon with his chin resting thoughtfully in his hands embodies a romantic evil, according to Camille, that sees all from above with a detached and melancholic air.

Camille’s observations on Hugo’s influence lead to an examination of other cultural factors that conditioned contemporary viewers’ understanding of the chimeras.  The physiognomy of the gargoyles aligned them with certain racist stereotypes.  For example, the curved hooknose of the pensive demon would have been understood as an anti-Semitic statement, as would the sculpture of the old man with a pointed hat and a flowing beard that Camille interprets as Ahasvérus, the wandering Jew.  Somewhat less convincing is Camille’s equation of some of the chimeras with the city’s “dangerous classes” – the insane, criminals, and migrant laborers -- because of their muscularity and savage appearance.  Camille ends this section of the book by noting how the political climate and public mood had changed over the 20-year period of the restoration.  At the beginning of the restoration the chimeras were understood as Gothic fantasies, but by its end they were perceived as signs of darkness and oppression.  He goes so far as to claim in the light of the clearing of the ancient slums around the cathedral and the Haussmannization of Paris, that the newly restored Notre-Dame became a tombstone marking the death of the medieval city.

The second part of Camille’s book explores how Notre-Dame’s chimeras have stirred the imagination of artists and observers from the time of their completion to the present day and how subsequent interpretations shift the meaning of the originals.  The first artist to reproduce the chimeras was the printmaker Charles Méryon, whose 1854 etching of the pensive demon, renamed the melancholy demon, surrounded by swooping birds, marks the beginning of the afterlife of the sculptures.  According to Camille, Méryon understood the chimeras not as external embodiments of evil but as tortured states of mind.  The printmaker, who ended his life in an asylum, made the monsters his own and tried to control them through representation. 

In a chapter entitled “Monsters of Light” Camille investigates the work of photographers, such as Charles Nègre and Henri Le Secq, who carried bulky, large format view cameras up the stairs to Notre-Dame’s balustrade in order to take photographs of themselves and others in the midst of the chimeras.  Particularly interesting in the section is Camille’s close analysis of the way different photographic processes, for instance the albumin printing technique or wet plate collodion process, create subtly different images. For Camille, the photograph has an uncanny ability to make the chimeras come to life, giving them the capacity to become sites of identification onto which viewers project their most intimate desires. It is no wonder then, that the chimeras by the end of the 19th century become associated with the dangers of female sexuality, prostitutes, and “sexual inverts.”

For instance, in Félicien Champsaur’s erotic work Lulu: Roman clownesque, 1900, the chimeras actually come alive to comment on the book’s heroine, Lulu, a trapeze-striptease artist.  The author’s descriptions of the chimeras are sexually charged, occasionally including elements that do not actually exist in order to heighten the titillating nature of his text.

In the second to last chapter of the book, “Monsters of the Media,” Camille takes on the daunting task of exploring representations of the chimeras in the 20th-century’s new media, such as film and the internet.  Postcards, surrealist images, esoteric tracts, Hollywood movies, New Yorker cartoons, and plastic squeaky toys are among the types of representations Camille examines.  Although the afterlife of chimeras and gargoyles of Notre-Dame takes place in reproduction, Camille asserts that their meaning is still derived from their reference to mid-19th century Paris because Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration of Notre-Dame was the beginning of a commodified and modernized Middle Ages.

In the epilogue to the second part of the book Camille examines the deteriorated condition of the chimeras and the most recent restoration of Notre-Dame.  According to Camille, the chimeras are about the constant disappearance of the past rather than its restoration.  Now, as in the 19th century when they were first conceived, the chimeras served to move history forward rather than to create continuity between the past and present.

The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame’s thoroughness of research, erudition, and clarity of thought reveal the workings of an extraordinary scholarly mind.  Although detailed, Camille’s prose is never turgid or jargon-laden.  His ability to draw together evidence as disparate as top hats and Sigmund Freud’s student years in order to support his claim that Notre-Dame’s chimeras are as significant for modernity as Baudelaire’s flaneur or Benjamin’s arcades is worthy of admiration.  The synthesis of literature, art history, critical theory, cultural history, and even the history of science will interest scholars in many fields.  But what makes this book truly extraordinary are Camille’s wide-ranging curiosity and his compassionate commitment to understanding the human condition, which are evident on every page.

Janice Mann
Bucknell University