This figure was found by a builder while working on a path in Church St in the town of Ashbourne Derbyshire. It was originally put into a skip with the rest of the rubble from the path but was fortunately rescued. It was then later sold to Mr Ashley Throw of Ashbourne who realised this was both old and interesting and bought the figure with a view to conserving it.
Location of the find
The figure was dug up approximately 200 yards from the Church of St Oswald on Church St. St Oswald’s was started in 1240 by Hugh de Pateshull and replaced an earlier Saxon and possibly Norman church. A Norman crypt was discovered in 1913 and the earliest existing parts of the church are thought to date from 1160. It would seems a likely source for the figure.
The figure is just over a foot wide and 28 inches tall. It is free standing and falls into the monstrous category of Sheela Na Gigs. The head is the most striking aspect with a skull like face and round protruding eyes. The right side of the jawline is pronounced while the left is missing, the mouth is indicated by a thick raised line. On the chest ribs are evident even to the point of representing a skeleton. The legs are wide apart bent at the knee with the hands resting on the thighs. An oval hangs between the legs with a deep deliberate incision. There is no way that this could be mistaken for a penis and definitely represents a vulva.
A Monstrous figure
Ireland holds a number of Sheela Na Gig figures which have a monstrous aspect. In the UK the figures generally are less so. This one is a definite exception with obvious cadaver like features.
Herringbone masonry is still visible in the church indicating that a stone structure was here in Saxon times.
Fairly plain Romanesque arches survived a Victorian restoration the eastern arch holds some lightly incised zigzag decoration.The church has gone through a lot alteration during its lifetime with work ranging from the 11th and 12th centuries to the 19th century.
was the parish church of Isaac Newton, who was also baptised here in 1643. It is also the burial place of both his parents. It lies less than a mile away from his family home of Woolsthorpe Manor.
This figure is obviously damaged but there are number of features that suggest it was once a female exhibitionist. Firstly the figure is part of one of the Norman arches in the church which suggests a 12th century (possibly earlier) date. Secondly the figure has one remaining triangular left breast visible with the suggestion of the right still apparent despite the damage. Both arms are pointing downwards towards the centre of the figure and a remaining knee and foot can bee seen on the right hand side. The bottom of the figure is missing with a reasonably clean break across the body while the left hand arm and part of the shoulder are missing with a somewhat rougher break. The head is much too large for the body and has some damage on the right hand side. The remaining left eye is lentoid (a Romanesque feature), the nose is missing and the mouth is just visible. There is a line inscribed on the back of the head either indicating a headress or possibly hair. Facially the figure has something of a grim expression. While there is quite an amount of damage to the figure the remaining features and context seem to suggest that this was once a female exhibitionist.
Other Exhibitionist Figures
There are also a number of other later exhibitionist figures on the church. Two anus showers one complete with modest testicles and penis and a monstrous ithyphallic figure. Two of these can be found on the tower of the church with the smaller anus shower residing on the North West wall.
The figure on the romanesque/Norman arch in the church. Photo Copyright Tina Negus.
The main door to St Mary’s church Wroxham, Norfolk holds two, blue stained figures which while splay legged are not exhibitionist figures. They serve as good example of figures which should be exhibitionist but in fact aren’t (compare to the splayed legged figure at Lower Swell). There is however another explanation of the figure which is related to the Sheela Na Gig phenomenon. Their feet appear to be somewhat fin like which may mean that the figures depict Melusine.
Melusine or the Double Tailed Mermaid
The double tailed mermaid is another religious sculptural motif which can be found all over Europe. Unlike the Sheela Na Gig which is more or less a 12th century phenomenon this motif persists into later periods as well. In fact it is still is use today with it’s most widespread, somewhat sanitized, incarnation being the Starbucks logo. Are the Wroxham figures actually mermaids? The fin like feet do tend to lend weight to this argument.
All images By Charlesdrakew (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Work on St Magnus cathedral started in 1137. The Cathedral’s founder was Earl Rognvald who supervised the earliest stages of the building during the bishopric of William the Old of Orkney (1102 – 1168). Between 1154 and 1472, Orkney was ecclesiastically under the Norwegian archbishop of Nidaros (Trondheim). Interestingly Nidaros cathedral also has a sheela na gig figure.
The figure is situated on the on the south west pillar of the presbytery. It is quite worn but originally would have been quite grotesque with a gaping toothless oblong mouth and what may have been a pointed head. The remains of the eyes suggest that they would have orginally been wide and staring. The remains of the right arm gesture towards the vulva. The figure’s hand is damaged but may have obscured the upper part of the vulva. The right hand gestures towards the head in a gesture not dissimilar to that of Roman depictions of the goddess Venus. Unlike the Venus figure however the sheela does not appear to have hair.
A sheela na gig at Ely Cathedral has been recorded for sometime. It gets a mention in Images of Lust after the work of professor George Zarnecki. However it turns out that there are two very similar female exhibitionist figures on the cathedral. This discovery came about from members of the Sheela na gig mailinglist visiting the cathedral to photograph the figure and comparing their results. The first members to visit the cathedral informed the list that sheela was extremely difficult to photograph as you needed to be in the Bishops private garden to get the best view. Other members of the list were puzzled at this as all you had to do was hop over a small wall and photograph the figure from a public green. Photographs of the figures were of low quality mainly due to the height of the figures on the cathedral’s clerestory. When they were compared they seemed to be of the same figure taking into account differing angles of view. However when the surrounding masonry and neighbouring corbels were compared it became obvious that the photographs were in fact of two different figures. Further research showed that the figures were in fact on opposite sides of the cathedral one being on the North clerestory while the other is on the South clerestory. The fact that the cathedral has two very similar female exhibitionist figures does not seem to be a well known fact. This is further borne out by the entries for the Ely corbels at the Courtauld institute’s CRSBI site where the North figure is not listed as being exhibitionist. As you can see from the picture on the left it most definitely is. Further discussions on the sheela na gig mailing list showed that some members had visited the north figure while others had visited the south figure. Both groups coming away having seen the Ely sheela na gig.
The French Connection
It’s thought French sculptors had a hand in the creation of Ely cathedral. This influence can be seen by comparing these figures to another exhibitionist in Vaux sur Aure France. The original picture can be found here on the Hortus Deliciarum site in France (French text. The website is dedicated to exhibitionist figures in France)
A similarly styled figure in Vaux sur Aure in France. Photograph used by persmission of Guillaume Lelièvre.
The South side exhibitionist figure (right) this picture from the CRSBI site clearly shows its exhibitionist nature. The south side figure is only viewable from the Bishop’s private residence which is obviously not open to the public.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Weir
The black arrow indicates the approximate position of the sheela na gig on the North side of the cathedral 1. Clerestory. The upper part of the nave, transepts, and choir of a church, containing windows… or …An upper portion of a wall containing windows for supplying natural light to a building
This figure used to reside on the external corner of the South transept of the Nidarosdomen Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway. It was replaced in 1992 with a modern copy and the original is now on display in the Archbishops Palace Museum attached to the cathedral. The sheela was published by Jørgen Andersen in the artcle “Konsollernes verden” in Kunst og Kultur Nr. 1 in 1996. This figure is one of three alleged sheela na gigs in Norway, The other carvings are at Stiklestad and Sakshaug although the Sakshaug carving is somewhat suspect as it appears to be more of a pine cone than sheela na gig. This sheela was in all likelihood carved by an English sculptor as we shall see below.
The History of the Cathedral
King Olaf Haraldsson (also known as Olav) now St Olaf was killed at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Tradition has it that the high altar of the cathedral marks the spot where he was buried. In 1031 the King was declared a saint and pilgrims started to visit his grave. Work started on building the first stone church at the site around 1070. This building was commissioned by King Olav the Gentle the nephew of St Olav and it is thought that English craftsmen were employed in its construction. Parts of the cathedral are in the Early English style.
For more information on English influence in the area see the page on Stiklestad.
English and French Influence
The cathedral bears some striking similarities to Lincoln cathedral which it strongly resembles. The romanesque corbels on the church also seem to be English in origin as can be seen below. A broken dragon head hood terminal now housed in the Archbishops museum is very similar to those found England. It also thought that English masons and artists had a hand in building most of the 20 or so Romanesque churches in the Trondelag area.
The Sheela na gig
As you can see from this angle the figure is unequivocally exhibitionist with one finger seemingly insterted into the vulva. However when viewed from the front which is the angle the corbel is most likely to be seen from it would seem that the vulva would be hidden in shadow. Kjartan Hauglid who supplied the pictures for this page assures me that the exhibitionist nature of the carving is visible from the ground. Nevertheless this figure is definitely one of the more modest sheelas unlike the “megavulvic” examples at Kilpeck and Oaksey.
Being “only visible from below” is a feature of some other sheelas, for instance the ones at Stoke Sub Hamdon and on St John’s at Devizes can only be seen to be exhibitionist from directly below. This begs the question that if figure is not overtly exhibitionist then why are the sexual features present at all? From the photograph below it seems that even when it was newly carved the height of the sculpture and the butress below it would have prevented its exhibitionist nature from being seen. Non overt or overly highly placed sheela na gigs would seem to be detract from the “warning against lust” theory put forward by Anthony Weir and James Jerman. If the figure cannot be seen to be exhibitionist then how does serve as a method of instruction? Conversely these non overt sheelas may be being used in an apotropaic way to avert evil in somewhat more quiet and non obtrusive manner than their more blatant sisters. The figures at Oxford and Stanton St Quintin were and are high up and barely visible from below.
Thanks go to Kjartan Hauglid for supplying the photographs and much of the information about the sheela.