Almost all architecture, from Ancient times until seventy-five years ago, rewarded the observer who looked up. Interesting, often delightful details await there. Our earliest skyscrapers often had decoration of a scale that could only be clearly observed with magnification from the ground or from a nearby high vantage point.
offers many interesting features above, among them our “grotesques.”
They exist at two levels on the lantern tower, below and above
the clerestory windows. In
general, a grotesque is a fanciful carving of a face, animal or
vegetation. The earliest
date from the Classical period, where, in addition to a decorative
function, they may have served to ward off evil spirits.
The name has Latin roots, associated with decoration of caves or grottoes.
Rows of grotesque corbels above and below clerestory window
Medieval sculptors were often afforded freedom in the form of decoration they applied to monumental structures. The resulting carvings sometimes had symbolic significance and sometimes were caricatures of acquaintances.
Shadyside is an example
of Romanesque Revival architecture (specifically the Richardsonian
phase). While such
structures drew many forms and features from buildings of
How, then, do our grotesques match up against Romanesque examples? First, while their form is a grotesque carving, their (nominal) function is as a corbel – a block-like support for a wall surface that projects beyond the surface below. We find many Romanesque examples with the same form and function. An examination of ours, however, reveals differences with Romanesque precedents.
Grotesque corbels at Kilpeck Church (c. 1140) Herefordshire, England
Photos by Sacred Destinations Travel Guide
Our grotesque faces are highly modeled and are more realistic looking than most Romanesque carving. To the modern eye, sculpture of the eleventh and twelfth centuries looks abstract, simplified and perhaps exaggerated. In some cases, they seem delightfully cartoonish. In fact the relatively refined appearance of our grotesque faces would seem more at home in Gothic sculpture.
Left: Gothic Carving at Chartres Cathedral, France Right: Shadyside
Photo on left by Sacred Destinations
The eclecticism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cheerfully allowed such apparent anachronisms. The level of detail on foliate and interlace patterns does not seem much different, however, than period examples.
Richardsonian Romanesque carving in Toronto, Canada, Upper row similar to Shadyside's, lower row more like Romanesque period carving.
Photo by Richard Warriner
Gothic gargoyle, Bern, Switzerland and Romanesque corbel, Herefordshire, England
Photos by Sacred Destinations
No pattern seems to emerge in the design or arrangement of Shadyside's faces. Their expressions range from pensive to grim to...well, grotesque.