The church of St Peter in Northampton is a fine example of a 12th century church and more importantly for our purposes a veritable cornucopia of exhibitionist and near exhibitionist figures. This church has seemingly gone unnoticed in by most books on the subject despite being in the middle of one of Britain’s major towns. The church also holds an exhibitionist male being eaten by a monster on one of the capitals in the church. Unfortunately the church was locked when we visited it and I was unable to get a picture. Photos of the capital can be seen on the CRSBI site at http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/ed/nh/nhstp/i25307.htm and athttp://www.beyond-the-pale.org.uk/zxNorthampton.htm at Anthony Weir’s site. The exhibitionist corbels form part of a much larger corbel table which is detailed here http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/ed/nh/nhstp/ on the CRSBI site. There are many replacement corbels on church but all of the ones detailed below appear to be originals.
These figures reside in the village of Moulton, Suffolk and were first reported by Dr Ron Baxter in the newsletter of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in the British Isles. The sculpture consists of a loose slab which at the time of writing is stored in the vestry under shelf. It shows a male and female figure carved in relief with an ill defined square floating between them. Both figures are jug eared and the male figure’s hands are over large. The female figure’s hands gesture toward the groin which has been damaged at some point. what remains of the right hand appears to be cupped but this may jus be down to the damage on the figure. The remains left hand appear to be holding back the left thigh. These positions are similar to other exhibitionist figures the left hand holds the thigh and the right indicates to the vulva. Unfortunately due to the damage on the figure there is no indication of a vulva. If one did exist then it would have been a fairly modest affair. If the hand was cupping then this unlike most other figures which are usually pointing to the vulva.
The lower half of the male figure is also damaged but there appear to be the remains of a penis hanging to the ground between the squatting legs. The hands are raised in the orans position as if praying. The figure is quite blackened so it is hard to make out any remaining features. The object between the figures is something of a mystery. It has been carved quite deliberately and appears to have a small section missing either deliberately or due to damage. Neither of figures is now overtly exhibitionist but from the poses and features which are similar to other exhibitionist figures it seems likely that they once were. The church is quite a grand affair for such small a village and the current building dates from the perpendicular and decorated periods. There was however a Norman incarnation the remains of which can still be seen in the fabric of the church. A number of later gargoyles and green men adorn the church exterior. It seems that this slab is a fairly recent find as it was not recorded in a study of the church in 1937 or in Pevsner’s 1961 or 1975 editions. Pevsner took pains to record sheela na gigs so it would have been something that would usually appear in the entry for the church. In fact the first mention of the slab appears in D.P. Mortlock’s The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches from 19881 .It would be interesting to find out when exactly the slab first appeared in the church.
Anthony Weir makes a comparison between these two figures and other figures in the church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand in Poitiers, France. The position of the hands is nearly identical the only difference being the female figure holds one hand up (another gesture common to sheela na gigs). This carving has been damaged too.
More information on the church and these figures can be fount at the CRSBI site.
This carving is housed in the Edinburgh’s Royal Museum and is described as “a woman giving birth”. The figures originate from a 12thC church in Kirknewton which was demolished in 1780. The piece is a voussoir which possibly formed part of an arch or doorway. The sign next to the figure notes the close links between Scottish and English church architecture in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Having now seen this figure close up I’m more convinced that the carving has sexual overtones. There are a number points that would possibly put the “birth” theory into doubt. Firstly the piece originates from the 12th century where we know there is a tradition of exhibitionist carving on churches. Birthing scenes are virtually unknown the only other example being a corbel in Romsey which is thought to be a Victorian copy of a 12thC corbel. This corbel however is completely different in style being a head protruding from between the corbels legs. Secondly the female figure is smiling, it’s more likely that birth would be portrayed as a painful experience in line with the bible.
Genesis 3:16 To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.”
Thirdly the female figure has her hand between the other figure’s legs on the groin. On the underside of the sculpture the legs of the figures are intertwined, this would be a little strange if it were a birthing scene. The left hand figure is almost certainly male. The striations on the head of the left figure indicating hair stretch up to the lip and chin representing a beard. The lack of breasts, which are present on the right figure, would also seem to indicate that the figure is meant to be a male.
Whereas no doubt men did play a part in births in medieval times depictions of birth would be far more likely to display a midwife rather than a male figure. We also have to remember that a male figure in a birth scene is perfectly reasonable from a 21stC viewpoint, however what we are looking at was carved in the 12thC. Taking this into account along with the prevalence of sexual imagery in 12thC church carving a sexual interpretation would seem to make more sense than a birthing one.
In 1050 Edward the Confessor, unhappy with the relatively obscure location of the See of Devon and Cornwall moved it from Crediton in Devon
to the more important location of Exeter. After the Norman conquest the second Norman bishop Warelwast, a nephew of William the Conqueror started construction of a new cathedral between 1112-1114. Construction continued throughout the 12th century with small hiatus caused by a fire during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. It is to this Romanesque phase of building that unusual two towers of Exeter and the sheela na gig figures belong.
The figures can be found on the north side of the south tower. They are extremely hard to see with the naked eye and can only be found with some sort of maginification. The best place to view the figures is by standing at the back of the large green outside the cathedral to the right of north tower. You have to look at the corbels on the face of the far tower over the roof the cathedral. The fact that the corbels are only around foot wide combined with the angle and distance at which they are viewed really does mean that you will need binoculars or a long lens on your camera. The in situ photos below were taken with a 1000mm lens. The figures consist of a definite female figure, a definite male figure and a slightly ambiguous figure which on the balance of probabilities is likely to be female.
All of the figures are crudely carved and now very worn, but even taking into account their current state even when new the figures would have been crude. This is curious as other figures while still not of the highest quality are better carved than the exhibitionists.
One of the more likely theories to explain exhibitionist figures is that they served a didactic purpose warning against sins of the flesh. Given that they they are nigh invisible from the ground a didactic purpose seems unlikely. What of the apotropaic theory as protection against evil? Again this seems unlikely as an explanation as the location does not readlily fit in with the theory. Unlike Oxford the figures are not over a gateway or facing outward, in fact the figures face inward towards the cathedral rather than outwards protecting against external evil. Despite being in plain view the figures are to all intents and purposes hidden. Could this mean that they are “pagan” survivals secretly hidden among the Christian carvings? Again this is unlikely, though crude the figures are similar to other romanesque carvings which are always found in a Christian context.
It is hard to ascribe any meaning to these carvings other than decoration like the rest of the corbels on the cathedral.
Thanks go to Thomas Cadbury for allowing me to visit the museum stores to photograph the casts.
The museum is not currently displaying the figures but is well worth a visit anyway
Ancaster is situated in SW Lincolnshire , on the Roman Road of Ermine Street . In Roman times, there was a walled town, with earthen defences. Much Roman material has been excavated, including a statue of the Three Mother Goddesses, a statue of Minerva, and two stones dedicated to Viridius. There was a Roman cemetery with entrance archway, and inhumation burials have been discovered: some of C4 may be Christian. There are Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon remains in the area also.
The church is located to the west of Ermine Street , just north of the cross-roads, and was in the SW corner of the ancient Roman settlement. It is dedicated to St. Martin , which appears to be a relatively common dedication of churches using a pre-Christian sacred sire, as St Martin was noted for his destruction of pre-Christian temples.
The earliest existing architecture is Norman : arches in the nave, remnants in the chancel (with possible evidence of an earlier Saxon window), and an attractive font with intersecting arcading. Most of the church is Early English (C13?) with a C 14 tower. The interior has an interesting range of corbels, including several musicians, a boozy nun, and a great Green Man.
All of the exhibitionist figures occur on the tower and are integral to the structure of it and thus are likely to be C14. Pevsner gives the location of the sheela as “on the west face of the tower”. It is actually tucked into the angle of the SW buttress and is echoed by a non-sexual figure on the other face of the same buttress. The figure is low down, well within reach, and shows signs of damage around the vulva. It is considerably eroded, and probably would not arouse interest unless one was familiar with the customary pose of the sheela motif. The figure is carved into a recessed rectangular block of stone (the local Ancaster limestone is good building stone, but perhaps not fine enough in texture for detailed work, and erodes quite badly). Only the head, arms and torso are shown clearly, the figure leaning out a little from the recess, and the hands holding open what must have been the thighs. The face is extremely eroded: there is a suggestion of hair, but no clear features. The vulva is relatively large.
High on the same face of the tower, leaning outwards like many of the grotesques and gargoyles on this church, is a grinning male figure. He is bearded, and holds a large erect penis in his left hand. The carving is quite clear, and in some detail, even the opening in the head of the penis is shown. Also on the west face of the tower, is a carving of a couple, whether male, female or both, it is difficult to say. They are clasping hands: the right hand of the right figure, and the left of the left-hand figure, are held together between them. The right-hand person’s arm is hooked around the partner’s head, the fingers clothing the cheek, towards the mouth. It is not easy to see the other arm, the left-hand arm of the right figure, but it does appear to descend between them, the hand located in the genital area: perhaps a visit in the evening with a lower westerly sun would reveal more detail.
The church of St Mary’s at Lower Swell in the Cotswolds contains a fine norman archway which holds a crude Sheela Na Gig and and a possible exhibitionist male.
The figure is to be found on the left side of the arch. The figure has a large head and left hand points to a small but definite cavity between the legs (see right). There are many other carvings including a hare and what appears to be a man battling with snakes. In addition to the sheela on the arch there also appears to be an exhibitionist male figure on a pillar on the left of the arch (below). The figure does not have clearly defined genitals but there does seem to be some suggestion of something there as you can see. This is another example of the difference in degree of exhibitionism seen in Romanesque carvings. While this figure lacks the overt exhibitionism of say Kilpeck it nevertheless has had a small vulva carved and even seems to be indicating to it in much the same way as the Oaksey example.
The male figure also seems to have inscribed ribs, a feature normally though not exclusively ascribed to sheelas. The pillar opposite the male figure shows some sign of defacing or is unfinished so there is a possibility that another figure originally faced the male figure. (See right).
The church itself is quite small but boasts some rich carving. There are corbel heads on the outside of the church which are very reminiscent of Kilpeck. The connection to Herefordshire carvings is further borne out by the tympanum above the front door which depicts a tree motif, usually referred to as “The Tree of Life”. Tympana bearing trees are a feature of the Dymock School in South Herefordshire. However the tree is not a particularly well carved specimen unlike the Herefordshire and Dymock examples. In addition to the tree a bird is depicted eating the tree’s single fruit. In his book “The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Scupture” Malcom Thurlbury suggests an origin for this tree motif from the medieval “Bestiary” which he cites as an often used source for church sculpture.
“The perindens is a tree found in India; the fruit of this tree is very sweet and pleasant, and doves delight in its fruit and live in the tree, feeding on it. The dragon, which is the enemy of doves, fears the tree because of it’s shade in which the doves rest and it can approach neither tree nor shadow.”1 The Bestiary then goes on to give a religious interpretation of the various symbols in the passage and how they relate to Christian practice. As we can see from the above quote it is obvious that the sculptor took his inspiration from the above passage. In addition to the tree motif the tympanum is also bordered by a repeated X cross pattern which also associated with other churches of Marches2
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The church of St John the Baptist Burford contains a small slab set into an internal turret on which are carved three figures which are thought to have come from an earlier building. This is supported by the fact that the stonework of the turret contains stonework from an earlier Saxon building. The figures comprise of three crude figures two of which appear to be displaying sexual organs. The figure on the left appears to have a slit indicating a vagina. While the middle figure has small “penis” peeping from beneath it’s skirt like garment. The middle figure is also gesturing towards the vaginal slit of the left figure. On the right we have a figure which at first appears to be a centaur but on closer inspection is a badly carved representation of a figure riding a horse.
Experts disagree on exact date for the carving some placing it in the 12th century interpreting it as the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt. It seems strange and even shocking to our modern view that differentiating Mary and Joseph would be represented by showing sexual organs. But it’s worth remembering we are looking at the carving with modern eyes and not those of the original sculptor
Other experts date it from the time of the Roman occupation which would make it a Romano-Celtic figure. While this is definitely not a sheela carving it’s also definitely an exhibitionist one but not one which fits easily into the rest of the catalogue of exhibitionist figures.
Romanesque arch on the west door of the church complete with Beakhead and Monster figures. The arch is circa 1175. The door and hinges are thought to be original
17th Century figure from the tomb of Sir Lawrence and Lady Tanfield. It’s interesting to note that this figure dates from the time of the puritans. A period in which we would expect a severe degree of sexual repression yet here we have a bare breasted young woman appearing on a tomb. It may be that our prejudices of the past being more sexually repressive have more to do with a comparatively recent Victorian influence than any basis in reality.
This figure resides high in the roofbeams of Avening Church Gloucestershire and has been described as a male exhibitionist by Malcom Thurlby in his paper on Studland church 1. The church at Avening is unique in being the only church commissioned by a queen. Namely Queen Matilda wife of William the conqueror. The story of the founding of the church has all the hallmarks of a romantic tragedy.
A Jilted Queen
In the year 1050, Brittric of Avening, Lord of Gloucester was sent by Edward the Confessor as an ambassador to Baldwin, Count of Flanders. It was here that he met Matilda who fell in love with Brittric despite him being married. However Brittric, who was said to be very pale (his nickname was Snow) rejected her advances much to the annoyance of Matilda. shortly after she became queen,she had the King disposses Brittric of the manor of Avening and had him thrown into prison at Worcester, where he died. Rumours have it that the death sounded very much like poisoning. Some years later the queen deeply regretted her actions and built a church at Avening in penance. The Queen consecrated the church in 1080 and gave a feast of a pigs head to the builders. This feast is still commemorated in the village as Pig Face Day on September the 14th where the villagers “feast” in the village hall.
The figure is an acrobatic type with the head peering from between the legs with the hand gripping the knees. The “penis” juts out from the wall and enters the mouth of the figure. The contorted position of the figure makes it very hard to work out where exactly the penis is coming from. In fact the “penis” is not particularly phallic especially with the lack testes which are usually shown. This figure is a good example of the variety of explicitness in Romanesque figures. While its very hard to see the gaping vulva of the Kilpeck figure as anything but a vulva the impaled figrue at Rock is altogether more ambiguous yet still seems to have some sexual characteristics. This figure equally ambiguous in its representation. “Penis swallowers” are not unknown in Romanesque carving with worn but still explicit example at Denton in the Midlands. The later worn Scottish figure in Glasgow may also be another example of a penis swallower. Another interpretation of the figure is that rather than being a penis it may in fact be a musical instrument. However if this is the case it seems more likely that it would be holding the instrument rather than its knees.
Another corbel in the church which I first thought appeared to be eating. However on closer examination and darkening the more deeply carved parts of the figure it turns out that the figure could be a muscian playing a bagpipe. However as Pat O’Halloran (www.danu.co.uk) has pointed out to me the fingers are in the wrong place for a bagpipe player. Anthony Weir is of the opinion that that this is another phallic sucking figure. In this case the pipe of the arm could be holding back a spindly leg. The damaged end of the leg couldbe a snapped off foot. Click on the image on the left to outline the figure and hopefully the carving will be a little clearer and you can decide for yourself.
1 The Romanesque Church of St Nicholas, Studland (Dorset), Malcom Thurlby and Karen Lundren in Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society.
Updated 16-04-2006. These figures are mentioned in Cave’s Roof Bosses of the Churches of England. Rather surprisingly they can be found in the cafe and near the Gift shop in Wells cathedral. The figure to the right can be found in the foyer between the gift shop and cafe. Look up as you enter the foyer and you should see the figure in front of you on the ceiling. The second figure can be found inside the cafe about half way down. This figure is not so distinct as the first and is badly weathered.
The Foyer figure. I recently revisited this figure and came away with better photographs. As you can seen from the above picture the figure seems to be fully clothed without any overt display of genitalia. There is a small lump in the groin area which may indicate that the figure is meant to male. Either way this figure is definitely not sheela na gig or a male exhibitionist.
The second alleged sheela na gig in the cloisters (now a cafe). As you can see from the photos above and below this figure appears to be a splay legged possible angel rather than an exhibitionist. You can make out two wings either side of the head and the groin is most definitely covered by a loin cloth.
The loin cloth covering the groin area.
Are these sheelas?
Cave mentions the figures in passing “as two sheela na gigs of an unusual type”. He does not give an exact position other than the cloister area. These two figures seem to fit his description. When Keith and myself the first visited the figures we both came away thinking that foyer figure was an exhibitionist, however on closer inspection this does not seem to be the case. We were more doubtful about the second figure and as it turns out with good cause. Neither of the figures is Romanesque and the carving appears later in style which further counts against them.
As can be seen with the Bristol figure and to a lesser extent the figure at South Tawton, Cave’s definition of a sheela na gig is idiosyncratic to say the least. With the better photographs above I think it is safe to say that both of the Wells figures are definitely not sheela na gigs or exhibitionists of any type, if of course these are the figures that Cave was referring to. If any knows of any better candidates for Cave’s figures then please let us know.
The architecture of the church at West Knoyle is of the decorated period (late 12th early 13th centuries) and adorning the tower on the corner directly opposite the main entrance to the churchyard is this monstrous testicle licking anus shower. This figure is posed in much the same position of feet to ears as another testicle licking anus shower at nearby Mere some 3 miles distant. on the right adjacent corner there is a carving of a dog with it’s head to tail. On closer inspection this figure too is licking its genitals. This could be an indication of how we are supposed to interpret this figure. A man acting like a dog perhaps? Possibly indicating a sinful, bestial nature?
Unfortunately I have not been able to find out much about the church or its figure to date. If you have any information please get in touch.