Stone carvings in Europe

In Australia people who earn their living in this way are called 'Tradies'.
In Australia, people who earn their living fixing or making things are called ‘Tradies’. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Since the dawn of time, the person who could whip up some sort of shelter using available materials would have been considered a useful person to have around. Although stone masons seem like every day ‘Tradies’ now, they have an intriguing history and once would have been very influential people. As the development of agriculture meant more permanent settlements were built, the rise of the stone mason began. There were three levels of skill identified in the stone mason trade, Apprentices,  Journeymen and Master Masons.

Construction on Milan Cathedral commenced in 1386 and they were still beavering away at it until 1965.
Construction on Milan Cathedral commenced in 1386 and they were still beavering away at it until 1965.

Castles and cathedrals took a long time to build and Master Masons were paid by the number of blocks they laid. In order to be as productive as possible, Master Masons would spend their cold, dark winters tucked away carving creations which they would then lay in the summer. They each had a particular mark they made on the stones that was their signature. That way they could be paid properly and it also acted as an early form of quality control. Who says we are more bureaucratic now?

A happy little chappy.
A happy little chappy. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Having had the good fortune to live in Europe for a few years, I have spent some time gazing at the amazing stone creations as I happily wander through crooked streets and cobblestoned squares. And the question that keeps on coming to my mind is, “What the hell were those guys on?” Some of these carvings are pretty and beautiful. Some are purely explanatory. But some are just downright scary and barely rate in the category of ‘decoration’. What is with that?

You do find pleasant, pretty sculptures. You have cherubs, especially in Paris. There are lots of pretty things in stone, gold leaf and wrought iron in Paris. There are also formal, pretty gardens. Paris is also a place of aloof beauty because the opera houses, art galleries and exquisite gardens that everybody admires Paris for were only ever intended for the enjoyment of a small class of people. I’m never sure if I am good enough for Paris.

A stunning greyhound statue in the Boboli Gardens, Florence.
A stunning greyhound statue in the Boboli Gardens, Florence.

But in other places in Europe you also have carvings that are just downright beautiful, like the stately dog statue I saw in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Others are humerous, like the carved cartoons in Winchester Cathedral, or the guy with the bowl haircut I saw in Zurich. Then you have the utilitarian variety, many of which seem to reside in Germany. These are the statues of people holding wheat sheaves, for example, out side what used to be the building for grain, you know, that sort of thing.

Informative carvings from the old town of Heidelberg.
Informative carvings from the old town of Heidelberg.

But a significant proportion of carvings in Europe are just scary as all hell! There are fantastical beasts of no particular species but including something from many. There are grotesquely warped faces and bodies, there are death scenes, torture scenes and there are gargoyles. According to which source you look up, gargoyles are meant to either ward off evil spirits, warn parishioners of what hell will be like or simply be decorative water spouts.

So where did these Master Masons get their ideas and what did the design conversation sound like? “Well Bob, I thought what I would do here is a nice plain surface out the front of the building and then I will put some scary as all batshit creatures on under the windows”? I can only imagine that the cold, hard winters they endured carving out their bits and bobs for summer must have been sweetened with something.

Scary weird thing.

Maybe they drank copious amounts of alcohol whilst they carved away?  But then surely they would not have had the manual dexterity to do the job? Maybe, just maybe, those early stone masons were all smoking marijuana! That would explain the painstaking detail and the weird themes in one fell swoop. Could this be why they are called ‘Stone’ Masons?

What about chrystal meth? A recent publication by German author Norman Ohler has highlighted that throughout World War Two Hitler was kept comfortable, shall we say, with his addiction to methamphetamine by his personal physician Dr Theodor Morell. It doesn’t excuse anything he did, but it may help to explain it. Maybe chrystal meth was behind the work of stone masons over the years, otherwise I don’t know how to explain some of the nightmarish visions you see around Europe. Stone masons –  guild with a black sense of humour maybe?

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