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The Story Behind the Darth Vader Gargoyle at Washington’s National Cathedral

Ellen Gutoskey
Darth Vader, an unexpected churchgoer.
Darth Vader, an unexpected churchgoer. / Dennis Heller, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Most visitors who leave the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., via the ramp near the northwest tower don’t realize that evil incarnate is bearing down on them. No, it’s not the devil—it’s Darth Vader.

His stone head protrudes from the edge of a gable beneath the tower’s middle pinnacle, flanked on either side by two much taller pinnacles. The Star Wars despot is quite hard to see without binoculars, and he's also not the sole sculpture on his gable: The other side hosts a raccoon.

Only sculptures that spout water are considered true gargoyles, which were originally conceived as a decorative way to drain rainwater from rooftops without sending it straight down the sides of the building. Since Darth Vader’s masked mouth has no spout, he’s technically just a grotesque, not a gargoyle.

This particular grotesque has been around almost as long as the character himself. During extensive renovations in the 1980s, the National Cathedral sponsored a “Draw-A-Grotesque” contest in National Geographic World magazine—a precursor to National Geographic Kids—asking young readers to submit designs for new sculptures. Roughly 1400 kids from 16 countries responded to the call.

The winning artwork was “Sagacious Grotesque,” a toothy man with an umbrella, designed by 12-year-old Alison Garner from Edina, Minnesota. She gave her clever illustration an umbrella because she knew he wouldn’t have a mouth spout to shield him from rainwater.

Three runners-up were selected, too: The aforementioned raccoon, a pigtailed girl with braces, and 13-year-old Christopher Rader’s rendering of Star Wars’ most infamous fallen Jedi. By 1986, all four drawings had been immortalized in stone. They’re far from the only idiosyncratic grotesques that hang off various parts of the National Cathedral. Others include a yuppie businessman; a gas mask-clad pacifist; and two grandsons, one with an intact halo and a toy wagon, the other with a broken halo and a cookie clearly stolen from a nearby cookie jar.

An erudite elephant hanging out at (or rather, off) the National Cathedral.
An erudite elephant hanging out at (or rather, off) the National Cathedral. / R'lyeh Imaging, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

But Luke and Leia's dear old dad, sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter and carved from limestone by Patrick J. Plunkett, is by far the most popular; Dan Brown even used the sculpture as a clue in his novel The Lost Symbol.

And thanks to Carpenter, George Lucas knows it exists. Around 2009, Lucas commissioned a statue of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., to be erected at his alma mater, the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Carpenter was hired for the job, and the two met at Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic offices to discuss the design. “I asked him if he was aware of the Vader grotesque,” Carpenter recalled on his blog, “and he said he wasn’t.” No word on whether Lucas has shown up to the National Cathedral with a pair of binoculars to check it out since then.

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