The Evil Eye, by Frederick Thomas Elworthy, , at sacred-texts.com
THE evident defence of a Christian church by the horn and crocodile amulets of Seville naturally leads to the consideration of those very common though remarkable appendages to other Christian churches with which most people are familiar. It would be an interesting study to ascertain when the grotesque and hideous things, those nightmares in stone which we call gurgoyles, were first adopted. Where was the germ first planted? From what kind of eggs were these fanciful birds, beasts, fishes, and reptiles, first. hatched? Without waiting, however, for an answer to these questions, we may venture to assert that the idea from which they sprang must have been the same as that we have been considering. The evil glance of a wicked eye might as well be personified as the great variety of other vices, such as avarice, lust, and drunkenness, to say nothing of the virtues, graces, and higher attributes, all of which have found their representations in personal shapes. Precisely then as justice, mercy, truth, find their expression in human female beauty, so would their opposites, the ideals of evil, find theirs in the fanciful and distorted shapes commonly understood by the term fiendish. The old conceptions of Gnostic days would
supply, from their grylli and other strange devices, 374a a link from the earlier days of Babylonian and Græco-Egyptian times, when their gods were represented with human bodies, but with heads of birds and beasts, more or less representing the special qualities attributed to those deities. We have seen, and have further to show, how strange objects have been erected both in pagan and Christian times in many public situations, with the object of protecting place and people from the wicked and malignant influence of evil spirits, emanating from the eyes of those by whom they were possessed. These evil spirits all became actual demons to those who believed in them; and inasmuch as they were all active agents of mischief and of evil, so it was but natural to suppose their attacks would be especially directed against those buildings and persons, whose purpose was to cultivate and to strengthen the opposite principles of goodness and of virtue. Therefore amongst those who firmly believed in these evil demons, and at the same time placed much reliance upon antidotes or protective amulets against their power, we should expect to find visible and lasting precautions taken, particularly in the case of buildings so liable to devilish attack as churches. This is precisely what we do find. The Middle Ages, when churches were rising in all directions, when the highest art and the choicest gifts of the people were lavished upon their religious buildings, were precisely the epoch when the dread of the evil eye was the most real, when perhaps of all other times the personality of spirits, good and bad, had become most firmly imbedded in the belief of the people.
Therefore it was that the same idea which to-day leads to the mounting of a piece of wolf or badger skin upon a horse's bridle to scare the evil glance of the versipelle, induced our forefathers to carve in stone, and so to perpetuate their fantastic conceptions of the wicked spirits they wished to scare away from their sacred buildings. We all know that our church bells have that as their original purpose,
and, a fortiori, why should not the stone demons which adorn the angles and conspicuous parts of our Gothic churches?
It is said, too, that the same idea of frightening away the evil spirits residing in them, is that which has led to the custom of our gamekeepers, to gibbet the "varmint" in some conspicuous place, so that the devils inhabiting the bodies of cats, stoats, jays, and magpies may be warned of what awaits them if they do not keep a respectful distance from preserves of respectable birds and animals.
It has been well remarked quite recently to the writer: "We never see a real gurgoyle now on a modern church; there are hideous things enough, but they have no life in them." The reason for this is not far to seek. The feeling and keen imagination which created the devils of our mediæval churches came of a lively faith in their reality. Nowadays such things are mere decorations, servile copies of the oddities invented by our forefathers, but without either knowledge or belief as to their meaning or intention. The consequence is, the inevitable lifeless failure of the modern stone-cutter. The monks of old saw the goblins they carved through the eye of undoubting belief.
Of course as time went on these grotesque demons and goblins, having been adopted as regular items of church decoration, lent themselves to the treatment of artistic and cultivated taste; but there can be little question as to their original intention. No better example of what we are maintaining can be found than that of the famous Florentine diavolo, of which a rough sketch by the writer is annexed (Fig. 92).
In the first place, it was designed by one of the greatest sculptors of the Italian Renaissance, John of Bologna, or as he is called Giambologna, the same who created that most elegant of Mercuries standing tiptoe on a breath of air. Originally there were two of these little bronze figures attached to the angle of a Florentine palace near the once picturesque Mercato Vecchio, but one was stolen many years ago, and that here shown has, since the writer's last
visit two or three years ago, been removed into a place of safety as a precious work of art. In this case the figure is of bronze, and was specially designed to be fixed to the wall of the house, just as horns
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It will be seen by this figure that horns were not considered specially the badge of honour or of sanctity, as in the statue of Moses. On the contrary, our own popular notion of the devil is more expressed in this figure: horns and cloven feet with a barbed tail being our ideal. Here he has the hairy thighs of a goat or satyr, and short horns; but the feet are not cloven hoofs. We may however take this figure as a typical one, fully representing the idea, in art and in fact, of just what we see petrified upon the towers and angles of our churches.
There is a very extraordinary collection of grotesque figures on the towers of Notre Dame in Paris. They are "like an actual body of fiendish visitors caught and turned into stone as they grinned over the city." 376 This idea of "turning into stone" brings back to mind the old fancy lying in the story of Perseus and the Gorgon.
230:374a For these see Abraxas seu Apistopistus Johannis Macarii, Antwerpiæ, MDCLVII. Also King, Gnostics, and Handbook of Gems.
232:375 Horner, Walks in Florence, 1873, vol. i. p. 156.
232:376 Pennell, The Devils of Notre Dame, 1894. Many of our readers will recall the grotesque bracciali upon the palaces at Sienna.