Mathew Duman

Mathew Duman among his subjects, Yale's gargoyles. (Christopher Arnott photo / November 19, 2012)

An Education in the Grotesque: The Gargoyles of Yale University

Photographs and text by Mathew M. Duman. $59.95. MDGD Publishing,


Gargoyles. They perch, stone-faced, from tall Gothic buildings. They glare with a malevolent permanence. They don't move. After a while, once you get used to them, they fade into the architecture and you forget about them.

Then they drench you with rain water. How sneaky of them.

Technically, see, a gargoyle (from the French "gargouille," or throat) is a delivery system for water, often a drain spout.

There are plenty of gargoyle-like statues that do not involve drainage systems. They are called, well, statues, duh, but a creepier and more explicit term is "grotesquerie."

Yale University is a paradise of gargoyles and grotesqueries, boasting perhaps the coolest assortment of such statues in the United States. Countless scholars, tourists and ghouls have admired and commented on these figures, which flocked their stony selves to Yale buildings with especial zeal in the first half of the 20th century, when architect John Gamble Rogers brought a major Gothic Revival sensibility to campus at a time of unprecedented expansion.

Mathew Duman self-published his book, An Education in the Grotesque: The Gargoyles of Yale University, at the beginning of this year. He promoted it with fliers taped to phone poles around town, a method which seems nicely in keeping with the outdoor-distraction attractions of his subject matter. The 190-page tome includes hundreds of photographs of Yale gargoyles and grotesqueries, with brief thoughtful commentaries by Duman. The author/photographer has divided his photographs into three main geographical categories: "Old Campus and Vicinity," "Cross Campus and Vicinity" and "Science Hill," drawing your attention to hundreds of separate sinister, silly, sarcastic, unsettling or simply-there statues.

Duman grew up in Bethany, and attended a gargoyle-free university, Central Connecticut State University. His interest in the grotesqueries at Yale developed when he began working in downtown New Haven as a photographer and graphic designer for the Knights of Columbus.

On a short walk around the block, from York and Elm streets down to Wall Street and back along High Street past Sterling Library, Duman casually points out dozens of gargoyles, and has something specific to say about each one. Outside Davenport College there's a vignette of Faust being tempted by Mephistopheles, a tale of greed which Duman likes to relate to the nearby sculpture of a giant roasted chicken above the college's kitchen entrance.

Two buildings named Sterling — the Sterling Law Building and Sterling Memorial Library — "have the most," Duman points out. The former is festooned with cops, robbers, judges and animals pretending to be them (a goat magistrate, a rooster lawyer), the latter indulges in cartoons of students, including one in the Exhibition Hallway who is reading a book that bears the motto "U.R.A. JOKE." There is some more serious statuary, of course. The Sterling Library bears an imposing head of J.S. Bach. Saint-like scribes are also depicted.

Among the photos in his book are a "Theater" sign from Jonathan Edward College (with not just the usual comedy and tragedy masks but a fool and a skeleton); a bishop's mitre that is part of the Berkeley College weather vane; and a snail on the edge of one busy multi-figure relief sculpture at one of the Yale Law buildings, suggesting the snail's pace of the American legal system; and many manifestations of "the Yale," a mythical beast mentioned in the ancient works of Pliny that combines attributes of a horse, a goat and maybe a dragon.

His favorite grotesquerie, Duman says, might be the intertwined forms of a Pilgrim and a Native American, pointing their respective weapons (blunderbuss and tomahawk) at one another. In most cases, Duman's careful photography brings light and detail and humor to these oft-overlooked mock-macabre artworks. Duman stood on walls, crouched, maneuvering hedges and trees and availed himself of monopods and wide-angle and telephoto lenses. In finding his own angles, he says he tried "to stay away from things a lot of other people have photographed."

"I did most of my photography in the summertime," the photographer explains. "Then the leaves fell, and all these other statues were revealed, and I felt I had to start over."

Duman is now curious to follow flocks of gargoyles elsewhere. "I'm planning a trip to Princeton," he says, where there are a number of creepy architecture incursions.

But not as many as at Yale, where gargoyles rule and drainpipes drool.