This figure resides in the church of St Savior’s in Jersey. St Saviours dates from 11th century with a church recorded here in 1087. There is indication that there may have been a church here as early as the 9th century. The figure is standing with both feet pointing to the right. It is quite thickset with large upper and lower arm and a plump belly. The hands point at the groin to a crudely incised vulva which does not go all the down to the crotch. The face is basic and the head is surmounted by what appears to be a headress or hat This is trapezoidal in shape and fits closely to the head. Headgear is not unknown on Sheela Na Gigs and this adds another figure to list. The quality of the sculpture is quite crude again not uncommon with Sheelas. Unfortunately this figure sits in isolation and there is no other sculpture to compare it to. It has spent most of it’s time hidden begin a wall which may go some way to explaining its survival.
Thanks go to Rosalind Le Quesne who first suggested this figure as Sheela na Gig in the Société Jersiaise Annual Bulletin 2019 (ISSN 0141-1942) and kindly supplied the photograph above and the excellent 3d model of the figure below..
Thanks go to Mr George Wingfield for informing the project of this figure. Brent Knoll church in Somerset dates back to 11th century but the tower on which this carving resides dates from the 14th. The figure is most likely contemporary with this phase of building. The figure depicts a monster in an “acrobatic” pose with its feet held to its ears. A smaller monster head pokes out from its mouth and appears to be indulging in self fellatio with the shaft of the penis clearly entering its mouth. Definitely an unusual figure which predates the Alien movies by centuries but has a distinct similarity to the Xenopmorph’s projecting jaws.
The church also has a series of satirical bench end carvings depicting clergy as foxes.
This figure was discovered by Theresa Oakley and was published in her doctoral thesis Lifting the Veil.
The figure is very worn and as such it is hard to tell what it was originally meant to represent.
The question is was this once an exhibitionist figure? There are a number of features that count against this. The land for the building was granted to the Austin friars in 1379 which puts the carving in a much later period than the 12th century when we normally see female exhibitionist sculpture.
It resides on the now disused Chapel of the Augustinian Friary on Conduit Hil, Ry and is in a somewhat dilapidated state. Permission was granted to the friars to rebuild their friary after a French raid destroyed the original buildings along with most of the town. The chapel is the only building to have survived into the present day. It has had a varied life serving as a store house in the 1700s. In the twentieth century it wet through many incarnations including Salvation Army barracks, theatre, malthouse, butter and cheese warehouse, wool store pottery and dance hall.
While I was visiting the figure one of the locals very kindly let me into his garden to have a look at the side of the building and photograph the odd blocked up floor level windows.
If this is an exhibitionist figure then it would be exceptional given the likely date of carving. It is worn and it is hard to tell what originally it once was. Angel figures from this period when they become worn start to become suggestive of exhibitionist figures. Having said that carving as it stands today is suggestive of one. At the end of the day this carving is simply to worn to make an accurate judgement.
The church of St Mary Magdalene in Winterbourne Monkton lies near the famous village and henge of Avebury. Monkton has religious connections going back to 928AD and was owned by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. This can be seen reflected in the village’s name of “Monkton”
There is a figure on the font in the church which has been referred to as sheela by the folklorist Ivan Bunn in his list of UK sheelas. At the time of writing his website now appears to be offline.
The font in the church is thought to date from the 12th century which would put it in the right period for sheela carvings. The figure however has no clearly defined gentials and has a number of other features which do not fit in neatly with it being a sheela. The head has no visible facial features the face itself being a scooped out hollow. The head also appears to have three horns or possibly a crown. There is a “bra” like structure on the chest which could indicate breasts. The arms of the figure are very odd, as you face the figure the arm on the left terminates in what appears to be a bird head while the right arm dissolves into a curl below the elbow (foliage perhaps?).The figure is splay legged with “something” appearing to emanate from the groin. This has been interpreted as foliage but as you can see from the photo on the left this “foliage” still retains some of the medieval red/orange paint. One of the ribs of the font has a definite bulge on it which looks to be deliberate and is missing from the rest of the ribs. (see below left)
The figure is one of the more puzzling figures I’ve come across and I’m not aware of any other figure quite like it. It seems to be more abstract than most medieval figures. It lacks the defined genitals which would definitely make this figure a sheela. Nevertheless it is an interesting and unique figure.
Thanks go to Carl Grigg for the photographs.
Close-up of the head showing the “horns” and scooped out face
Abstract corbels, an astrological tympanum, St Michael slaying the dragon and host of other architectural features make Stoke Sub Hamdon a veritable feast of medieval carving.
The church has been added to many time over the centuries resulting in a many different features from different times. The church is thought to have been originally built in 1100 the first version of the church not having a tower. This figure and a later nude figure on the church is discussed in the paper Two Sheila-na-gigs at Stoke Sub Hamdon by Paul Ashdown in Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 1993.
The figure can be found on the left side of the church as you enter from the main gate. Walk past the tower and you should find a series of Romanesque corbels. The picture below indicates the exact position.
At first glance the figure is unremarkable just a face staring out from a squatting body. However when you go directly beneath the figure you can clearly see a cleft indicating either buttocks or a vagina. Unfortunately it is hard to from the carving which it is meant to be. There also seems to be some indication of hands pulling a the cleft apart but this not clear. While the figure is undoubtedly exhibitionist is it a sheela? Well it has all the characteristics of a sheela except for the fact that it’s exhibitionist nature is not immediately obvious. It is not as “in your face” as the Kilpeck or Oaksey sheelas and has less of an impact. In fact you have to go out of your way to discover that the figure is indeed exhibitionist at all. The same goes for the later figure on the rear of the church (see below) mentioned in Paul Ashdown’s paper.
This later figure (right) can be found on the rear of the church high up on the back wall. It consists of a nude figure with it’s mouth wide open which is blocked by a piece of rubble. The figure is missing the right hand limbs but gestures to the vulva with it’s left hand. The vulva is not immediately obvious and it was only due to the fact that we had read John Ashdown’s paper that we noticed it. In fact both myself and Keith Jones missed this figure on several separate visits despite the fact we were looking for figures of this type. The figure appears to have been moved from elsewhere and looks like the type of gargoyle figure you see adorning later medieval church towers. If this is the case then the figure would have faced head outwards with the feet on the tower while a channel would have been set to make waste water emerge from the mouth. If this description holds true then the vulva would have been facing the church and would not have been immediately obvious. There is also some indication that the vulva may have been carved at a later date than the main figure as it appears to be out of line with the main body. If you look at the photograph above you can see that if you draw a vertical line through the vulva it points to beyond the figure’s left shoulder rather than straight up to the head.
Once again we are faced with the question of the definition of a Sheela na gig. This figure lacks the overt exhibitionism of the Kilpeck and Oaksey figures in much the same way as the earlier Romanesque corbel on the other side of the church. Nevertheless it is displaying it’s vulva (if not in an immediately shocking way) This and the fact that stylistically it appears to much later than the usual Romanesque period, makes it one of the latest vulva displaying figures in the UK.
The rest of the church is very interesting with many different carvings dotted around it. There are some corbels which very abstract in design and would not look out of place in an Escher drawing. In addition to these some carvings (see below) are very odd defying a simple explanation of what they are meant to represent.
Tympanum over the main door to the church containing the astrological symbols of Saggitarius and Leo.
Interestingly the Sagitarius/Leo motif is duplicated on the font at Hook Norton including the explicit naming of the figures with inscriptions.
According to The Witch on the Wall the figure was discovered near the remains of St Ives Priory the figure is crudely carved for the most and appears to have signs on burning on it. The photograph to the right was taken in the 1970’s by Anthony Weir author of Images of Lust . At that time the figure was in the private possession of Mr R.C. Jude of St Ives. I contacted the Norris museum near St.Ives with a view to finding out what had happened to the figure and whether the museum now had possession. Unfortunately according to the museum Mr. Jude had since died and had no immediate family. It’s assumed that the figure was left to his cousins or more remote family. Unfortunately this now means that the figure is essentially lost. If anyone knows the whereabouts of the figure or can put me touch with Mr. Jude’s family please let me know.
One of the odder features of this sculpture is that vulva resides in a depression. This could be down to the legs now being missing or possibly that the figure was being eaten by a monstrous pair of jaws,
Please note that this shows the Location of St Ives. This figure is now lost.
Royston Cave is one of the more unusual places in Britain. Possibly the remnants of an Neolithic flint mine, the cave was used for religious purposes in medieval times and is covered in carvings of religious and secular subjects. Local historians insist that there is a Templar connection and that it was used for initiation purposes into that order. The imagery in the cave tends to support this theory with some of the carvings being interpreted as events in Templar history. A number of saints are depcited including St Catherine, St Lawrence and St Christopher. The cave originally had a platform built into it which made the old floor much higher than the modern one.
This sheela figure is situated between a horse and a sword as can be seen in the above picture (Fig 1). It’s open to debate whether the figure should be taken in context with these carvings as Joseph Beldam did in his book The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave 1884 (see below). My initial reaction is to take it as a stand alone figure there does not seem to be a discernable pattern in how they should be read. The figure has the Herculean shoulders and the exaggerated hanging pudenda which marks it as sheela but, as Anderson points out, the figure does not gesture to the genitals the hands hanging loosely at its sides. The carving of the sheela is fairly crude especially when compared to some of the care taken on the other figures. There are a number of holes drilled into the walls of the cave which are thought to have held supports for the candles that lit it. Interestingly one of these holes is directly between the legs of the sheela (Fig 2) this would have meant that the figure and more to the point the vaginal area would have been directly lit further emphasizing the shock that the figure would have been likely to induce.
Whereas it is hard to date the carvings the style of some of the imagery seems to indicate 13th – 14th Century origin. This would make this a later example of sheela if this date is correct.
Royston lies on the intersection of the ancient thoroughfares of the Icknield Way and Ermine St. Interestingly another Sheela can also be found near the Icknield way further south at Buckland
In 1884 Joseph Beldam published a book called “The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave”. In the book the Sheela na gig changes sex and is associated with the horse and sword next to it. This scene is then, somewhat bizzarely, described as the conversion of St Paul. As can be seen in the illustration from the book on the left the Sheela has been bowdlerised into a clothed figure petting the horse next to it. This is one more example of Victorian self-censorship in the describing of exhibitionist figures which can also be seen in tracts on the Llanhamlach figure and the typanum at Stoke Sub Hamdon.
Antiquarian William Stukeley made an earlier drawing of the figure which has also been bowdlerised. In this drawing the arms are correctly positioned but the figure has acquired a head of hair similar to other figures in the cave and the carved vulva now becomes part of a skirt or shift. As you can see from the above photograph the legs are indicated either side of the vulva making it distinctly un-skirt like. Stukeley attributed a Norman origin to the cave writing shortly after it’s discovery
This figure is situated on the Norman Abbey in Romsey. the current church is the third to stand on the site but has been a place of worship for at least 1000 years going back to Saxon times. Romsey Abbey is widely regarded as one of the best examples of Norman church architecture still standing.
This sheela is unusual in that it is accompanied by a number of objects. The figure holds a crooked staff which has been interpreted as a crozier. The staff is said to indicate that the figure is meant to be the abbess. There is also a hard to identify object in the figure’s left hand which has been identified as shears. However Richard N Bailey examined this figure close up on scaffolding and dismissed this interpretation in his paper Apotropaic Figures in Milan and North-West England (point 12). As you can see in the photograph on the left the object does not appear very scissor like. The figure straddles what appears to be a now damaged bowl. The vulva is indicated by a small notch and is not very prominent.
The figure was known locally by schoolchildren1 in the past as “The nun on the potty” this is probably due to the fact that there appears to be something between the figures splayed legs. This object appears to be a damaged pot hence the local name for it. Indeed the figure may be a combination of exhibitionist and an “at stool” figure although there does not appear to be any sign of a stool.
Whereas it’s very hard to determine what the unidentified object is, my personal theory is that it’s a purse ring . See Melbourne Church’s Miser Figure for an example of a purse ring. In December 2006 I revisted Melbourne and took some more detailed pictures of the “miser” figure and found that the object that the figure was holding actually included what seems to be the sack of the purse as well. If you compare the Romsey figure to the Melbourne one they both seem to be holding what appear to be very similar objects. This would seem to fit into the alleged satirical nature of the carving as the purse ring is used in Romanesque carving to indicate miserliness. This would mean that carving has been used to imortalise the abbess’s niggardliness possibly in paying the sculptors. However there a problems with this theory in that the purse ring is usually depicted as a open D shape which the object only just resembles. We should also be a little wary of the satirical explanation as this is one frequently used to explain rude or out of place carvings on churches. A similar story is told about the Kilpeck figure and many other anomalous (to our eyes) church carvings. One odd fact is that the carving was originally in position where it could not be seen easily. This begs the question could this be a genuine example of a “mason’s joke”. There are however a number of features that would argue against the satirical nature. The carving is not a quick piece of graffiti but a well carved and detailed panel. It would have taken a significant amount of time to carve taking a sculptor away from other more visible and authorised work. As with most speculation on these figures the fact is we will never really know. There could however be another explanation for the figure which involves a royal scandal and an abbess who became a wife.
Tradition has it that two sculpted heads on a capital in the South Transept at Romsey represent King Stephen and his ill fated daughter Mary of Blois. As was the custom in the 12th century Mary was dedicated to a religious life as a child by her mother Matilida. She was placed in the priory of Stratford-atte-Bow in Middlesex along with a group of nuns from St Sulpice in Rennes who were attend to her upbringing. Apparently the strict rule of the English nuns did not sit well with French group who were used to a more lenient regime. No doubt the importance of their royal charge also contributed to the friction. Unfortunately this strife was taste of what was to come for the young princess. Some years later Queen Matilda founded a new priory at Lillechurch in Kent and at the tender age of sixteen Mary found herself the prioress of the St Sulpice nuns.The rents from Lillechurch manor were made over to Stratford priory to cover the costs of the new sister house. It would seem that relations did not improve despite the move and few years later Stratford priory rescinded any claim to Lillechurch on the condition that Mary’s group packed up their bags and left forthwith. During her time at Lillechurch her mother Matilda and her father King Stephen died leaving Henry II to suceeded to the throne. Henry was of a different family to Mary and so her fortunes dwindled somewhat.
It seems easy to read between the lines in this history that group were troublesome and not easy to control. Whatever the reason the group left Kent and were sent to Romsey some time between 1156 and 1158 where Mary was appointed new Abbess. The choice of Romsey was not unusual as it had a tradition of housing those of royal blood who took to the cloisters. Mary began a quiet life at Romsey until 1159 when Mary’s brother William died leaving her the sole heiress of her families estates including Boulogne in France.
It is at this point that scandal rocks 12th century Europe.
King Henry II sees an opportunity to strengthen his alliances on the continent by marrying Mary, despite the fact she is an abbess with accompanying vows of chastity, to Matthew of Alsace the younger son of the count of Flanders. Thomas a Beckett’s horror at the scarelige of this marriage is written about by a number of writers of the period. All but one of the chroniclers of the period paint Mary as the innocent party in this scandal. For a short time she was the “innocent object of execration” 2 of most of Europe. The marriage led to the excommunication of Matthew but not that of Mary which seems to indicate that she was seen as an innocent party in this sacreligious union.
Sheela na gig or Mary of Blois?
Does this mean then that the carving at Romsey is actually a record of this scandal? The figure definitely represents a ecclesiastical figure due to the prescence of the crozier. The other objects though are more troublesome, a pot which the figure squats over and looped object held in the left hand which may be a purse representing money. For the most part Mary was seen as the innocent party so is it likely that she would be villified in a satirical piece of sculpture? Despite this the sculpture does seem to represent an abbess and even though Mary was widely believed to be innocent there was a school of thought that she could have objected more strongly had she wished to. Given that Mary’s ecclesiastical career was a matter of circumstance rather than conviction would she have welcomed the marriage? Apparently not as a later letter to the King of France makers clear her hatred of King Henry and it would appear she did not welcome the marriage at all. Nevertheless we have a sexual sculpture of what appears to be an abbess and a sexual scandal involving an abbess both of which come from the same period. Unfortunately there is no definite proof that they are connected.
Romsey Abbey. The arrow indicates the position of the sheela na gig carving. The birthing corbel is on the adjacent lower corbel table.
Unlike most church sculpture we have a likely sculptor for this corbel as he has kindly left his signature on the side of the figure. The name Ellery is fairly easy to make out with a possible date of 1865 below. A Thomas Ellery is recorded in Harrod & Co.’s Directory of Hampshire & Isle of Wight, 1865 “Thomas ELLERY, stone and marble mason, Middle Bridge street, Romsey”. Unfortunately only Ellery is clear with some scratches possibly indicating initials. It’s thought that this corbel is a replacement for an original romanesque corbel of a similar design.
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
Fibreglass cast images used with permission Thomas Cadbury of Exeter Museum