GOOD grief, but there are some naughty carvings on York Minster.

Don’t get us wrong. There are a fair few angels and goodly, decent men and women depicted among the hundreds of statues, gargoyles and other figures that adorn the cathedral's walls.

But there are plenty of genuine grotesques, too. Bare-breasted women, leering imps, devils with gaping mouths - even a cloven-hoofed figure dressed as a monk who is clearly a wicked parody of saintliness. Oh, and there's also at least one bare-bottomed man mooning gleefully at the pedestrians far below.

Up until now, very few people have been able to see this gallery of grotesques properly.

Then along came York photographer Catherine Sotheran with her long lens. And suddenly there they are in all their glory, laid bare in her new book York Minster In Close Up.

Catherine admits that when she turned her new camera with its high-powered zoom lens on the Minster, she was astonished by what she saw.

"I thought York Minster would be a really good subject for photographing," she says. "But the more I looked, the more I saw. I spent a couple of hours just panning across, looking."

What she discovered was a whole world of saints and sinners, beasts, imps and satyrs squatting up there on the Minster and looking out over the world below.

Many of the images are shockingly profane: men vomiting on the streets below; leering beasts of all descriptions; monkeys apeing human behaviour. Several faces are blindfolded; other characters are contorted as if writhing in the flames of hell. There's even an obscene, snouted pig-like creature cradling a baby monkey.

See this gallery of grotesques up close (most of them are not, strictly-speaking, gargoyles: a gargoyle is a carved water spout) and you find yourself thinking: what on earth were the medieval church fathers doing, letting the stonemasons of their day get away with carving so much profanity into the very fabric of the great cathedral? Did they simply not know what their masons were up to?

Dr Emma Wells, an expert in ecclesiastical history at the University of York, thinks there is more to it than that.

It is likely that many of the grotesques may have been intended to actually ward off evil from entering the cathedral, she says: either by drawing the attention of evil spirits and so deflecting them away, or by openly defying them. Mooning, or baring your backside, was a well-known insult in the middle ages (just as it is today). But rather than mooning at the people of York far down below, the bare-bottomed men carved on the Minster may actually have been mooning at the devil - or 'cocking a nook' at him, as Dr Wells puts it in a piece she wrote for BBC History.

The carvings also served to emphasise the contrast between the outside world of sin and folly, and the sanctity inside the cathedral, she believes. And they may have performed another function, too: to remind people of the consequences of sin. Certainly many of the carvings depict people struck down by illness, or writhing in pain.

And what about the naked women? These were often situated above the doors in churches or cathedrals, Dr Wells says. They may well have been designed as warnings, as if to say 'let no sin enter here'.

The animal carvings, meanwhile, had their own significance. Lions often represented people in medieval imagery, Dr Wells says - and could also stand in for Christ. Monkeys, too, were often represented behaving like people - playing games, or eating and drinking. "But the overall purpose (of them) was to suggest the folly of man. In the Christian tradition, apes were seen as ... parodies of humanity, displaying gluttony, vanity and foolishness." So they, too, may well have been warnings to medieval men and women about the consequences of depravity and sin.

All that said, Dr Wells admits that sometimes the masons may just have been having a bit of fun, too.

The medieval French abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived from 1090-1153, once wrote, with reference to similar grotesques:"What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters under the very eyes of the brothers as they read?…To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man?...Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities we should at least regret what we have spent on them."

Not all medieval churchmen, in other words, appreciated the profane stone carvings. "Perhaps sometimes the carvers went a little bit too far!" Dr Wells says.


York Minster In Close Up by Catherine Sotheran was being officially launched in the Marriott Room at Explore York library at 2pm today. It features hundreds of photographs of the Minster grotesques, together with notes describing where on the cathedral each is to be found. The book is available from the author, priced £15 plus £2.50 p&p, by emailing or from her Facebook page 'Author of York'.