Social media was flooded with photos of the devastating fire that tore through Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15. But on some West African sites, many people were discussing a different set of images: that of statues allegedly on display in the cathedral that were perceived as shocking, devilish and sometimes immoral.

The France 24 Observers team identified at least 50 such social media posts from Togo, the Central African Republic, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon. Some, since deleted, were shared more than 1,000 times.

The captions on some of these photos described the statues as “a demon lair” and a “temple of homosexuality”.

One post questioned the alleged display of demon statues on the iconic Paris cathedral.

Some of these statues have nothing to do with Notre Dame

At least two of the photos circulating online, however, have nothing to do with Notre-Dame. We used a reverse image search to determine the true origins of these photos.

The photo below shows a statue of a man displaying his rear end and seemingly performing oral sex on himself. Known as the Kallendresser, it is actually located on the city hall building in Cologne, Germany. The figure of Konrad von Hochstaden, a 13th-century archbishop, stands over the Kallendresser, representing Von Hochstaden’s ability to vanquish sexual urges.

A lewd statue of a man engaging in sexual intercourse with a goat also circulated online, though it isn’t from Notre-Dame. It’s in fact a statue of the Greek god Pan in the Herculaneum Villa of the Papyri and is currently displayed in a museum in Naples.

Statues believed to have 'near-magical powers'

Pierre-Olivier Dittmar, a historian and a lecturer at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (known in France as EHESS) said these types of statues were intended to fend off evil.

Almost all of the statues in question date from the restoration of Notre-Dame carried out by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. They come from romantic, sometimes fantastical imagination of the era. Many of these creatures were inspired by the works of Victor Hugo and monsters from the Middle Ages.

The idea was to adorn the church with monsters as a way to use evil to ward off evil, to scare demons away from this sacred space. The statues that show rear ends or sex had a similar purpose. They were thought to have near-magical powers. Very often, they were placed on the edge of the structure or under the feet of saints, to symbolise the good triumphing over the bad.

A statue from the Middle Ages that appears in Dittmar's book, "Image et transgression au Moyen-Age", or “Image and Transgression in the Middle Ages", co-authored with Gil Bartholeyns and Vincent Jolivet.

In medieval art, it was common to represent evil in order to defeat it, to dominate it. It was only after the Council of Trent in 1563 that the Catholic Church conceded to Protestant criticism by no longer producing depictions of evil.

This story was written by Alexandre Capron.