Buncton/Wiston

The Destruction of the Figure

This figure was destroyed in November 2004

The figure as it is now

The figure after Nov 2004
The figure after Nov 2004. Picture courtesy of Martin Duffy. Copyright Martin Duffy

Sometime between the 10th and 11th of November 2004 this figure was destroyed by a vandal. It’s been in the church probably since the early 1100s only to be destroyed by some idiot with a chisel.
It’s interesting that one of the parishioners was not too unhappy to see it go, mainly because it was “pagan”. The pagan survival theory for sheelas is probably the one with least evidence to support it, most of the evidence points to a medieval Christian origin for them. There has been some speculation that the damage may have been done due to it’s supposedly “pagan” nature. If this is the case then the person who did the damage may like to know they have destroyed part of their medieval Christian heritage rather than the desecration of a pagan idol. Whatever motivation was behind the damage there is no denying it was a mindless act. The destruction was widely reported including a short mention in the Telegraph.

10 Years On

Emeritus Professor of the University of Sussex, Robin Milner-Gulland wrote an article in the December 2014 edition of Sussex Past and Present the Sussex Archaeological Society Newsletter. The following quote is from the end of the article

The carving, including the roundels, was destroyed by chisel (left-handedly) on the 10th or 11th November 2004; the fragments were left on the floor and put in the care of one of the churchwardens.
They were inspected by a representative of English Heritage, who reported that the stone was friable, the fragments small, so ‘reconstructive surgery’ would be needed if they were to be restored – but it was not impossible. A strange ‘ghost’ of the carving can be detected on the impost. The vandalism was reported in the press, the police made investigations, but since that time everything seems to have stalled and the fragments to have been lost. The police have a suspect, but in the absence of hard evidence are not in a position to make an arrest. It wasn’t, apparently, a random act by a passing stranger, but seems to have been somehow connected with parochial dissension between different groups in the congregation: the supposedly ‘unChristian’ carving was perceived as malign. When I suggested to a churchwarden that a photograph of it could be displayed, I was told ‘it wouldn’t last a week’. So after ten years we still live with the consequences of an act of deliberate vandalism in one of the most precious of Sussex
churches: a mystery story that lacks its final chapter.

The Original Text

SheelaBunctonStanding

Picture courtesy of Shae Clancy. Copyright Shae Clancy

This Sheela can be found in All Saints Chapel near the tiny village of Wiston in Sussex. The church is situated well off the road behind trees and is very easy to miss. I drove past it a few times while looking for it. There is a red sign on the road indicating the presence of the church which belongs to the parish of Wiston with Buncton. If you have read Images of Lust this sheela only gets a passing mention and is reported as being in the village Buncton. This is not entirely accurate as it is situated a little way outside the village of Wiston, in fact Buncton seems to consist of two or three houses and is not clearly signposted.

The figure itself is situated on the left side of the chancel arch. It is quite high up and unusually it lies on it’s side. (see below). A note in the church describes the carving as being that of the mason and makes no reference to it being a sheela or even female. There may be some doubt as to whether this carving is a sheela or not. There are no obvious genitals on display but there does seem to be some indication of toolwork where the genitals should be. If there were genitals at so me time then the carving would be similar to the one at Oaksey in Wiltshire. This similarity is further borne out by the fact that stances of the figures in both carvings are very similar and it appears to be pointing to the vagina in the same way as the Oaksey sheela. The carving also has two very small breasts or nipples which are not obvious in the photograph. The short comment in Images of Lust quotes Professor G.Zarnecki who describes the carving as being”much rubbed”, I find this hard to believe for a number of reasons.

1. The carving is far too high for anyone to casually rub it. You would need a ladder or be standing on a chair to reach it.

2. The carving appears to be in situ i.e. It does not seem to have been moved from some more accessible place where rubbing could have taken place.

To my mind it makes more sense that if the carving is a sheela then it has been carefully defaced at some time, notice the scratches around the genital area in the photograph above. In addition to this there is a vulva shaped depression between legs which would seem to that perhaps at one time the figure was more exhibitionist than it is now and has been the victim of some puritanical “enhancement” rather than rubbing for good luck or fertility.

The church itself is very old dating back to between 1150 – 1180 although land had been granted to the church in this as far back as 791 AD. Its Romanesque elements lend some weight to image being a sheela as they are normally found on buildings of this era. Another feature on the carving may point to the image being a sheela. The left had rests on the hip of the figure while the right arm seems to straighter with the now missing right hand resting slightly lower down. It may be that the figure was pointing to the genital area in much the same way as the Oaksey and Lower Swell figures. Another aspect of the carving ties it in with the blind arcading found on the outside of the chapel. The round hatched circle above the head of the figure (right)Oaksey is duplicated on one of the arches in the arcading. (See Below)

The History of the Chapel


The chapel stand on the hill of Biohchandowne from which Buncton is thought to have taken its name. There is no record of a chapel in the Domesday book despite the fact that a royal charter granted the land to church in Saxon times. (For a detailed paper on this charter click here http://saxon.sussexchurches.co.uk/buncton_charter.htm)

The following is extracted from a visit made to Buncton in 1871 by Mr. MatthewOaksey Holbeeche Bloxam, his brother, the Rev. J .R. Bloxam, and the Rev C. W .A. Napier. Rector of Wiston. Originally published in Sussex Archaeological Society Notes And Queries in 1913.

“The Chapel visited by me in September 1871,is a small Norman edifice, consisting of a nave and chancel only, with a modern bell –cote over the west end of the nave, containing a single bell. The exterior of the nave is extremely plain, and the walls are unsupported by buttresses. The south door has been blocked up with masonry plain horizontal lintel, consisting of a single stone, forms the head of the doorway, above which is a plain semicircular arch.

The chancel arch is semicircular and Norman in style, the chancel does not appear of its original dimensions, but may have been shortened in the 14th century. It is now in the interior 13 feet 6 incOakseyhes wide by only 11 feet 6 inches in length. On the north side of the chancel arch there is some rude sculpture of a man. It is lighted by a small Norman or early English window of a single light, both on the north and south sides. In the east wall is a decorated window, either modern or restored. In the south wall of the chancel is an Ogee-headed Fenestella, trefoiled under the head and moulded. Within and beneath this is a projecting perforated basin or piscina; this is thought to be of the 14th century. In the north wall opposite the piscine is a somewhat large but plain pointed locker, divided by a stone shelf of the 14th century.

On the exterior or the chancel on the north side and on the south side there are three pointed arches, in either wall, of semi-Norman design, somewhat rudely ornamented with Norman mouldings. The Walls are constructed chiefly of flint and rubble masonry, intermingled with Roman tile. The east wall of the chancel is of Ashlar masonry, and appears to have been constructed in the 14th century, when the chancel was shortened. Projecting from this east wall inside are two small moulded brackets of the 15th century. There are no details or indications of masonry of greater antiquity than the middle of the 12th century, circa A.D.1150; the chapel was, in my opinion, constructed.”

The Buncton Sheela in negative which shows more detail.
Arcading on the church
The blind arcading on the exterior of the chapel consists of re-used romanesque material re-carved to form steep pointed “gothic” arches. The original arches were in all likelyhood round headed. The middle arch holds a number of hatched semi-spheres very similar to the now destroyed decoration above the figure.

 

SheelaBunctonDecorationAboveHead
A close up of the hatched semi spheres on the middle arch of the arcading.
SheelaBuncton2
The decoration above the alleged sheela na gig figure.
SheelaBunctonArcading
The front of Buncton chapel. Arcading made of a re-used romanesque arch.
The back of the church. Note the unusual arcading
The back of the church. Note the unusual arcading

 

Buncton Chapel on other sites

There are some better pictures of the figure at
http://saxon.sussexchurches.co.uk/images/buncton/buncton2/index.htm

And a better picture of the above figure here. You can see the tool marks between the legs quite clearly.
http://saxon.sussexchurches.co.uk/images/buncton/buncton2/pages/DSC05448.htm

There is a detailed description of the chapel here along with a early photograph of the figure.
http://saxon.sussexchurches.co.uk/buncton.htm

Location

Directions

Painswick

The Male figure at Painswick
The Male figure at Painswick

The Figure

This figure lies on a corner stone of the church of St Mary the Virgin, Painswick. Painswick is a picturesque Cotswold town which has earned itself the unofficial title of “Queen of the Cotswolds”. The church which was originally Norman was remodelled around 1480 in the perpendicular style. The churchyard has 99 yew trees in which enclose the churchyard paths making them into tunnels in some places. There is a legend surrounding the yews that if a 100th tree is planted then the tree and the person who planted it will die because the devil wishes to keep the number at 99. The church is also famous for it’s large imposing spire which can be seen for miles around and it’s “clypping” ceremony where once a year the children of the parish form a ring around the church and sing hymns. It’s thought to express the parishioners love for the church by embracing it. On the outside, the church is for the most part fairly plain but there are at least four pieces of carving including the male figure with a possible fifth enigmatic “face” high on the tower. However this may just be an simulacra. If anyone knows any more about this “face” I would be happy to hear from them.

The phallic male figure has stubby arms and legs with a bald head and a pointed beard. Between his legs there are pair of small weathered testicles and his long thin penis rises almost to his chest. The penis is also slightly off centre. The figure shows a similarity to a bearded figure on the chancel arch atLower Swell some 30 miles to the East. 

All of the figures on the church show a fair degree of weathering. In addition to the male phallic figure there is also a man with a “barrel” with a hole in it, another who appears to be eating and a gargoyle type figure. All of these figures have holes in them unlike the phallic figure which would seem to indicate that were meant to act as waterspouts. No mention is made of any of carvings in the church literature. Thanks go to Hazel Brown for bringing this figure to my attention.

Barrel toting Gargoyle
Barrel toting Gargoyle
Eating Man?
Eating Man?
Painswick Gargoyle
Painswick Gargoyle
"Face" high on the church tower. May be from civil war damage
“Face” high on the church tower. May be canon ball damage from the Englisgh Civil War damage

Location



Directions

Burford

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

There are large images on this page please wait for them to load
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.

Location

Directions

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.



Directions

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

 

Location



Directions

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

Location

Directions

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

Location



Directions

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.

Location

Directions

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.

Location

Directions

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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