Living Gargoyles – the Medieval Art of Gurning (or How Ugliness Illuminates Beauty)

gurner (1)Believe it or not, there is an annual face-pulling competition that takes place in Cumbria in northern England that can trace its history back in a continuous line to the 13th century. The art of face pulling is called ‘gurning’. Every year there is a competition at the annual fair in the Cumbrian town of Egremont. What is now called the gurning world championship has been held at the Egremont ‘crab’ fair since 1269. I have a personal connection here as as members of my family, on my mother’s side, own a farm there (no jokes about how you can see the similarity from my photographs of me please!).

If one compares the faces of the gurners with cathedral gargoyles we can see similarities – I managed to make the pairings shown below. When you look at the faces of these champions, the gargoyles don’t look so fantastic.

So compare the above with the gargoyle below. When I look at the medieval carvings I always think that we can be certain that the masons of the 12th century had a pretty good sense of humour!

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at

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