Goofy to Ghastly: Gargoyles Around the World

A dragon gargoyle adorning the National Cathedral, Washington D.C. Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty

Carved stone animals adorn the sides of many Gothic buildings, particularly in Europe. Perched on high, some of these mystical beings provide merely visual appeal; others—technically known as gargoyles—are an essential part of a building's water drainage system. Just like Halloween costumes on trick-or-treaters, grotesques don't have to be eerie or ghastly; they can be quirky and even goofy. From Darth Vader on the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to stone dragons in China's Forbidden City, behold some of the most unexpected and unique grotesques and gargoyles from around the world.

Peace Tower, Ottawa, Canada

CUL_Map_Gargoyles_Peace Tower on Parliament Hill

Rather than appear scary or intimidating, these four gargoyles jutting out from the Peace Tower in the middle of Parliament Hill are carved in the likeness of a man with his hands together. The tower serves as a memorial to the men and women who have given their lives fighting for Canada.

National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

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Eva Hambach/Getty

Luke's father has peered over the side of the otherwise classic cathedral since the 1980s. The carving of the villainous Darth Vader was the third-place winner in a contest for children during the cathedral's 83-year construction. Others among its 112 gargoyles include a bear representing the symbol of Missouri and one carved in the likeness of a New York City corporate executive.

Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina

Courtesy of The Biltmore

Constructed by art collector George Vanderbilt, this 250-room mansion considered to be America's largest privately owned home is elaborately adorned with a collection of gargoyles that runs the gamut from dragons to expressive, human-looking figures— and even a bear with a honeypot.

Basílica del Voto Nacional, Quito, Ecuador

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Eduardo Fonseca Arraes/Getty

Legend has it that if this neo-Gothic church is ever fully complete, the world will come to an end. Superstitious or not, before that happens, visitors should take a look at the gargoyles that adorn its exterior which depict animals native to the region from iguanas to armadillos.

New Cathedral, Salamanca, Spain

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This cathedral has left many visitors bewildered because of one particular carving—a figure resembling an astronaut. What's so strange about an astronaut? This cathedral was carved back in the 17th century—when space travel would have simply been the figment of someone's imagination. It turns out that the astronaut was actually added to the cathedral during an early '90s restoration.

Bern Minster Cathedral, Bern, Switzerland

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Arthur Tilley/Getty

Constructed in the 1400s, the tallest cathedral in all of Switzerland is home to some very expressive gargoyles— from a ferocious dog to a devil clutching a mermaid's neck—and most notably the screaming "stonemason."

Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway

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Stian Thorgaard/Getty

From humanoid figures in distress to roaring reptilian creatures to a perched gorilla, this Gothic cathedral is covered in picturesque–and grotesque–gargoyles. Begun in 1070, the church was built over the tomb of Norway's patron, St. Olav.

House with Chimaeras, Kyiv, Ukraine

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Ruslan Kaln/Getty

Another example of non-traditional gargoyles, this Art Nouveau building is decorated with scenes depicting animals and mystical creatures. From frogs sitting in a row to an elephant head and even a mermaid flipping her tail, this official Ukrainian building has a hodgepodge of statues to discover.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China

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Nash Photos/Getty

Famous around the world for its gold and red detail-rich exterior, China's imperial palace complex features gargoyles in the image of dragons as part of its surrounding walls. Throughout the Forbidden City, dragons are emblematic of the emperor.

Correction 10/23/20, 10:26 a.m. ET: This page was updated to clarify that the astronaut seen on the New Cathedral in Salamanca, Spain was added in the 1990s as part of a restoration rather than included in the original construction as previously suggested.