31 July 2013

Teutenberg's gargoyles

Prussian immigrant Anton Teutenberg’s work on the heads of British and local VIPs that decorated Auckland’s new Supreme Court, constructed in Waterloo Quadrant in 1866, so pleased the architect Edward Rumsey that Teutenberg was then given free reign with the design of the gargoyles that were to decorate the rest of the building. And they are glorious examples of the Gothic grotesque!

Though common on the churches and cathedrals, houses and halls of medieval Western Europe, gargoyles are not so frequently seen in Antipodean latitudes, which is one reason why these are so very eye-catching. The other is their weird and wonderful shapes: two-headed scaly beasts with sharp talons and even sharper teeth, ugly flying dragons, cloven-hooved monsters, roaring fish, and what looks like a flying sheep with eagle-like beak and claws. Their sculptor obviously had a very vivid imagination and could quite easily have won a job making orcs and aliens with today’s blockbuster movie designers.

As well as decorating a building, some gargoyles also perform the practical function of funnelling water off rooftops. This concept apparently dates back to the ancient Greeks, who placed terracotta or marble lion heads on roof cornices to channel water away to the street. Wikipedia has some fascinating information about the history of gargoyles and some wonderful photos.

The early rain-heads also helped protect masonry walls from water erosion, so were typically quite long and projected out from the sides of buildings. On the more modern High Court building, which had guttering fitted, this idea has been adapted to produce the comical creatures with wide open mouths that divert water into the down pipes.

In medieval times, gargoyles had other functions. The frightening demons were a graphic illustration of evil, and could be used by the clergy to warn their parishioners of the horrors of hellfire and damnation. These grotesque creatures were also believed to ward off the evil spirits that might attempt to invade castles, buildings and churches.

The High Court gargoyles show a fascinating mix of characters. As an Auckland Star article, dated 15 February 1936, explains, Teutenberg has produced ‘a Puckish warning against evil spirits’ by carving personifications of ‘the morning after the night before’ in two of his designs:

Two of them merit more than the attention of a passing glance. They are set at the corner pieces of a polygonal bay window below the battlemented tower. On the right is portrayed the tortured face of a gentleman (adorned with the “belltopper” [top hat] of the fifties) who is apparently suffering some of the more violent agonies of alcoholism. A hand clasps his fevered brow. A somewhat similar figure adorns the opposite side of the window, except that a bandage replaces the hat and hand. The intrinsic meaning is the same.

Though Teutenberg had never carved in stone prior to producing the heads and gargoyles that embellish Auckland’s High Court, his fertile imagination and skilful hands have produced the most extraordinary examples of the sculptor’s art. If you ever visit Auckland, you simply must see these for yourself.

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