Burford

The Three Disgraces at Burford Church
The Three Disgraces at Burford Church

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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.

The Romanesque Arch at Burford Church
The Romanesque Arch at Burford Church

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

SheelaBurford02

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.

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Avening

Penis Swallower?
Penis Swallower?

The Church

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

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 Penis Swallower?
Another Penis Swallower or bagpipe player?
The Corbel outlined to make the figure clearer
The Corbel outlined to make the figure clearer
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.



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South Tawton

The South Tawton Figure
The South Tawton Figure

The Figure

This figure is reported in C.P.J. Cave’s book ‘Roof Bosses in Medieval Churches’ . Of all Cave’s reported Sheela Na Gig figures South Tawton is probably the best candidate for actually being a sheela. The figure has been described as headless but as you can see from the above photograph the head is bent upwards. Unusually for a female exhibitionist the figure is made from wood. There appears to be a cross marked on the figures chest originally I thought this was down to cracking but after having visited the figure it appears to be deliberate scratching (see below). The figure also has two breasts lightly scratched on the chest which are faintly visible in the photograph. There appears to be a vaginal cavity with a small round ball beneath the opening. Without having seen the figure I thought this may have represented a ball of dung. As it turns out the pellet is in fact the head of a very large nail. This would seem to negate the “man at stool” interpretation of the figure. Two other nails can be seen near the elbows of the figure As Cave is a source for this figure I’m inclined to be suspicious but of all his figures this one is the most “sheela” like.

 

SheelaSouthTawtonCrossAndBreasts
A Close up of the Chest

 

 

The lightly scratched breasts are more evident in this picture
The lightly scratched breasts are more evident in this picture

 

A close up of the groin area clearly showing the definite cavity between the legs. Note the "dog leg" joints on the legs. This makes the figure less human an more animal. The "pellet" between the legs is in fact a large nail
A close up of the groin area clearly showing the definite cavity between the legs. Note the “dog leg” joints on the legs. This makes the figure less human an more animal. The “pellet” between the legs is in fact a large nail.  Picture copyright Rachael Harding

 

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Donyatt

The Donyatt Figure
The Donyatt Figure
Digitally repaired version of the figure
Digitally repaired version of the figure

The Figure

This somewhat odd figure is in private possession in the village of Donyatt Somerset and is not on view to the general public. It is thought to come from the remains of a late Norman chapel and manor that once graced the village 1. All in all this is a very strange figure. Firstly it appears to be a corner ornament which has had the left hand side squared off. The head has either also been squared off or as seems more likely was originally flat. This seems to be the case as the hair on the side of head terminates abruptly but there also seems to be the remnants of a flat “brim”. This would seem to indicate that either the carving was wearing a brimmed hat or something was on the head. It may be that the carving was meant to support a pillar in much the same way as the head below from nearby Stoke Sub Hamdon There also appears to be a “horn” protruding from the hair. The face is damaged with no discernable features and the head is joined to the body by a thick neck. A broad belt or band covers the barrel like body. The figure if it was a meant to be inset in a corner, would seem to represent a spread eagled body (see reconstruction below). There is also band between the legs of the carving on which is carved a small neat vulva. The vulva is carved partially on the aforementioned band but is also deeply reset into what appears to be damage in the groin area. It’s very hard to say whether the vulva was carved before or after this damage but due to it being part of the band running between the legs it may be an original piece of carving especially as its stands proud from the surrounding stone. Saying that my initial impression was that the vulva had been re-sculpted at some point mainly due to the sharpness of the carving. There is further evidence in that the “band” seems to have been cut in further to make the lips of the vulva stand proud. You can see that where the stomach terminates there is dip where the “band” used to be.

Close up of the vulva. A later carving?
Close up of the vulva. A later carving?

Thanks go to John Gower for informing us of the figure and to the owners of the figure for allowing it to be shown on the website.
The Chapel and Manor at Donyatt
The substance of the wall where the sheela is located is made up from rubble of the previous Manor building 2. A manorial chapel of the Montacute family is mentioned in 1255 as separate foundation from the parish church while the first mention of the manor itself occurs in 1328. The manor however has been rebuilt a number of times, with the last stage being Elizabethan. The building where the sheela resides is thought to incorporate stones from this building. The figure could have originated from any period of rebuilding but from the style of carving and its nature it is not unreasonable to surmise that it originated from the first incarnation of the chapel. It is worth pointing out however that carving is in a very good condition so has not be exposed to the elements for any long period. Mick Aston and Teresa Hall3 ascribe this figure to an unknown romanesque period of building at the local church, however taking into account the now defunct manorial chapel this seems a more likely source for the carving. A later date for the figure cannot be discounted however. There is another late exhibitionist figure at Stoke Sub Hamdon some 10 miles to the east4. Stoke Sub Hamdon has another earlier romanesque figure which is also an exhibitionist, if a fairly modest one. This would seem to indicate that there was a continuing tradition of carving exhibitionist figures in the area during the medieval period.

All in all a very unusual carving

 

 

The Head at Donyatt Church
The Head at Stoke Sub Hamdon Church

The head at Stoke Sub Hamdon acting as the base of a pillar on the front door. If the sculpture above performed the same function as this head, then it would explain the flat top of the sculpture. Note the continuation of the stone at the side of the head this may go some way to explaining the “horn” on the side of the head. It’s also worth noting the “corner” nature of the carving.

1. Brian Harper Resident of Donyatt and builder of the wall on which the sheela resides
2. The Story of Donyatt and the Millenium Celebrations, Donyatt 2000 Committee
3. Somerset Archaeology 2003, Mick Aston and Teresa Hall
4. Two Sheila-na-gigs at Stoke Sub Hamdon, Paul Ashdown, Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 1993

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Please bear in mind that this figure is not on public display

Fiddington

The Fiddington Sheela Na Gig
The Fiddington Sheela Na Gig

The Figure

This sheela lies in the small village of Fiddington in Somerset and is located to the right of the main door to the church near a drainpipe. It is fairly large carving. According to the well researched leaflet in the church the stone is 33cm high and 39 cm across while the carving is 30 cm (12 inches) at it’s highest. The wall on which the sheela resides contains traces of herringbone masonry and again according to the leaflet in the church if the sheela in contemporary with this then it would indicate a date of the 11th or 12th century. This would seem to make sense as it fits in with dating for other sheelas. The carving itself is crude, the best carving is reserved for the head while the rest of the body and genitals seem to have been quickly executed. There is some indication that the lower body has been damaged possibly in an attempt to hide the nature of the figure. The vagina is not deeply incised in fact when I first saw the figure it was barely noticeable. Only when the sun had changed position did the slit become readily visible as a long shadow. (See below). The figure holds its left hand high above its head while the other holds a knee helping to splay the legs. The pose is very reminiscent of the Croft On Tees Sheela in faraway Teeside although the position of the arms is reversed. The church itself has been extensively renovated throughout the years the only indication of the true age the church being the herringbone masonry. Interestingly the sheela has survived rebuilding and is obviously well respected. It’s interesting to note the differing attitudes of the various parishes to Sheelas unlike some the parish is obviously very proud of it making extensive reference to it in the literature. While we were at the church a local woman greeted us and the first thing she mentioned was the sheela. She also told us that the rubbing had been taken of the carving by Mick Aston of Time Team fame while he was the district archaeologist.

 

Herringbone Masonry showing the age of the church
Herringbone Masonry showing the age of the church
Fiddington Church
Fiddington Church

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Stanton St Quintin

The Stanton St Quintin Figure
The Stanton St Quintin Figure

The Figure

The church of St Giles at Stanton St. Quintin is located in the county of Wiltshire it is a small unassuming village very near the M4 motorway. I learned about this Sheela from internet mailing list and found out that it had been published in The Haunted Landscape a book on Wiltshire folklore. When visiting the site it’s easy to see why this sheela has not been reported before. Situated high on the church tower it is nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding masonry. We were only able to find the carving with the help of the ex-vicar of the church John Morgan who very kindly showed us round.

The figure itself is quite unusual, (if anyone can tell what a usual sheela is I would be glad to hear from them). Firstly as it is situated high on the church tower almost out of sight and does not seem to be associated with doors or windows. It is interesting to note that the Oxford sheela occupied a similar position though. The figure is quite small with a large squat oval head. It’s hard to tell from the photograph but the top of head may have been cut off. There also appear to be two large trumpet like ears. It also appears to be holding two grooved sticks. It’s hard to distinguish what these “sticks” may be. The sheela is also unusual in that it seems to have four holes drilled into it. Two large ones around the genital and stomach area and two smaller holes drilled into the main body. This is similar to the Seir Kieran figure now in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

The figure is mentioned in the church guide but its height and position have probably kept it out of the gaze of most researchers.

Male or Female?
Once again we have to ask the question is this a sheela na gig? It lacks the overt unequivocal nature of the Kilpeck or Oaksey sheelas but what do those holes mean? Given that the holes are round were they used as socket for a phallus? The positioning of the holes would suggest that one position is meant for a flacid penis (pointing down) while the other is for an erect penis (pointing straight out). If this is the case then we have a male rather than female figure. The “breasts” however would seem to indicate that the figure is meant to be female. The lower hole could just be an exaggerated anus which can be seen on other figures like the one at Twywell.
The “ears” also appear to be fairly deep holes. Were these used to hold horns or antlers? The Seir Kieran sheela has similar holes on it’s head which some have argued have been used as sockets for this purpose. The smaller holes on the abdomen are more difficult to suggest a meaning for. All in all an enigmatic and puzzling figure.

Thanks to Richard Pederick for the use of the  b&w picture of the sheela below.

Photo of the figure by Richard Pederick

Photo of the figure by Richard Pederick

 

SheelaStanton05
Worn Romanesque figure of Christ set into the west wall

 

 

SheelaStanton06
Romanesque Heads on a column in the Church

 

 

The location of the figure on the tower
The location of the figure on the tower
Column Swallower
Column Swallower

The church also has a number of carvings dotted around the structure most striking of these is the pillar heads on the back door to the church. Both pillars are topped by identical pillar swallowing heads with ornately carved headdresses.

For more information on column swallowers see Anthony Weir’s website.

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Wells

 

The Figures

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.

SheelaWells01

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.

SheelaWells02

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.

SheelaWells03

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.

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Bristol

The Sheela Na Gig?
Suggested sheela figure (Photograph by Keith Jones)

 

St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol is located near Bristol Temples Mead Railway Station. The church which dates from 1115, was named from the red cliffs located below the church. During a visit in 1574 Queen Elizabeth I claimed St Mary’s Redcliffe to be : ‘the goodliest, fairest and most famous parish church in England’ St Mary Redcliffe, is a very rich church by any standard. It contains a wealth of stone carvings with several animals, a mermaid, a maze, about forty Green Men, a ‘Man at Stool’, a number of exhibitionists, and the Sheela na Gig.

Cave (1948) in his book ‘Roof Bosses in Medieval Churches’ puts the Sheela above the wall plate, and in the nave. Unfortunately Cave gives no description of the Sheela, and as a result an extensive search of all the 1200 roof bosses produced five candidates. The kneeing figure, and a naked male and female, an anus shower, and another exhibitionist all can be illuminated.

The most likely candidate for the Sheela is located in the next bay to the west from the transept crossing. Face the high north window, locate the roof boss at the apex of the window. Follow the rib, left to the next roof boss, from here follow the next rib right to the next boss which is the Sheela. Martin Lee describes it in his ‘The Boss Walk: A short guide to Roof Bosses of St Mary Redcliffe,’ as ‘Naked man with furrowed brow’. The figure is found with a foliage background, one leg at least wrapped around her neck, and arm, with one hand touching her face, while the other comes to rest at the genital area. It appears as if three fingers are buried into the vagina, while her index finger comes to rest near the anus. Although a very natural looking carving, the figure is bald, thin, and the furrowed brow may represent ageing, C. J. P. Cave seemed very unorthodox with the definition of Sheela na Gigs, accepting South Tawton, and the Wells pair as Sheelas.

Another boss of interest an anus shower is located opposite the Sheela. This figure is wearing a rather elaborate head gear consistent medieval period, also what appears to be a chemise tucked up above the buttocks with puff sleeves. The body is held in a curve with buttocks exposed. There is a hole consistent with an anus, and a vulva or scrotal sac which sags forward.

Keith Jones

Is this a Sheela?

After much searching Keith came up with the figure above which seems to best fit Cave’s criteria. As we know from the Wells figures, Cave’s interpretation of sheela na gig figures is idiosyncratic to say the least. It seems that Keith has found the best candidate for this elusive figure but as with Cave’s other find’s it’s dubious to say the least.

John Harding



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Clevedon

The Clevedon Figure
The Clevedon Figure

This figure can be found in at the Church of St Andrews in Clevedon, North Somerset. The church is thought to date from the 12th century but has been added to over the years. There is some doubt over the date of the foundation with several dates possible from 1090-1170. The masonry however is late Norman. The tower was originally short and quite stubby and was raised to its present height in the 17th century. There is a rich corbel table surrounding the tower (see below) with each corbel being carved. However the carvings are now so worn as be almost indistinguishable from the ground. The variation in carving can be seen from the different outlines of the corbels. Despite the number of carvings on the church nothing has been published on them 1. The majority of the carvings are heads which can be found in double, treble and janiform styles. One corbel is very abstract and it’s very hard to tell what it is meant to represent.

The alleged sheela figure can be found on the right hand side of the church as you walk in through the main gate. It is one of a number of corbels (see below for examples) which are just above head height under the eaves of the church roof. The figure hold a foot in each hand in an acrobatic position which is very similar to a figure in Lower Swell. There are no immediate genitals visible but there is a small cleft in the middle of the groin and there also appears to be the remains of a large cigar shaped area of stone immediately in between the legs. This could indicate that the carving has been defaced at some time. If this was originally a vulva then it would be similar in relative size to the Oaksey Sheela however it could equally be a mega-phallic male. Unfortunately it is now too worn to be sure either way.

Is this a sheela na gig?

The truth of the matter is it’s impossible to tell. Romanesque sculpture includes both splay legged exhibitionist figures and non exhibitionist splay legged figures. For example the figure at Rock church in Worcestershire is splay legged and impaled on something. While the it is suggestive it is not overtly exhibitionist. A number of the
capitals in Anselms Crypt in Canterbury Cathedral are also non exhibitionist splay legged figures. Unfortunately this figure will have to be filed under “maybe”.

Bulbous Eyed Head
Bulbous Eyed Head
SheelaClevedonCat
Cat Corbel

 

SheelaClevedonBird
Bird Corbel

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SheelaClevedonThing
Abstract Corbel

 

The Tower at Clevedon Church
The Tower at Clevedon Church

 

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West Knoyle

West Knoyle Anus Shower
West Knoyle Anus Shower

The Figure

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.

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