This acrobatic figure lies inside St Botolph’s Church, Shepshed, Leicestershire. The church was founded in the 11th century. The oldest part of the church, the west tower and spire, dates from the 13th century The nave, with clerestory and aisles, and chancel date from the 15th-century. The style of the figure is hard to date but would seem to come from one of these later dates. It appears to be female but there is some damage evident that may indicate the figure was originally male.
This figure can found on the underside of the font in All Saints Church, Ballidon near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. It is unequivocally a female exhibitionist which has its legs raised high in the air exposing a deeply carved vulva and also an anus. As the Friends of Friendless churches website says the building is “a church of puzzles” being a mixture of styles with the font being the most puzzling feature of all. It has been described as Tudor in style but has mixture of motifs including a muzzled beast head and the female exhibitionist figure which are Romanesque motifs from the earlier 12th century. In addition to this some of the carving is upside down and its quality is “rustic” to say the least. It has been suggested that the carving may hay the work of an apprentice trying out different styles. Thanks go to John Vigar https://www.johnevigar.com/ for the information and pictures on this figure.
Ballidon lies around 6 miles north from Ashbourne with its controversial exhibitionist figure, Alstonefield with its Romanesque monster eating a female exhibitionist also 6 miles or so distant to the West, the Haddon Hall sheela na gig lies 11 miles to the north along with the nearby Darley Dale anus shower . There definitely seems to be a tradition of carving exhibitonist figures in this area.
The Pennington Sheela na Gig now resides in Kendal Museum 1 .
The figure was found during a refurbishment of the church at Pennington in 1925. The current building dates from the 1826-27 after the earlier church was pulled down. There is a surviving Romanesque tympanum from the original church which is set into a wall. This has the unusual feature that it in inscribed with runes which name the founder and mason who built the church. The inscription has been said to read “Gamal built this church. Hubert the mason carved.” but this is open to debate and is not helped by the fact that the tympanum is badly weathered 2.
The figure is fairly crudely carved in shallow relief. The left arm gestures to the deeply incised vulva while the right is mostly missing, but there is evidence that it to is gesturing in a similar manner. The remaining left hand has three carved fingers on it and there is a ghostly outline of a right had also gesturing to the vulva. It also has two crudely carved hanging breasts high on the chest. The head again crudely carved has jug ears, a long simplistic nose, two circles for eyes and appears to be smiling. One of the more primitive examples of a sheela na gig.
Richard N. Bailey in 1979 recorded this name for the figure after a conversation with a local resident. It was then published a number of years later in his article “Apotropaic Figures in Milan and North-West England” (Folklore vol 94;i 1983). This makes this one of the newer names for a figure and is probably associated with the runic inscriptions on the church tympanum.
Thanks go to Clare Heron for the use of her photographs of this figure.
This figure was found by a builder while working on a path in Church St in the town of Ashbourne Derbyshire. It was originally put into a skip with the rest of the rubble from the path but was fortunately rescued. It was then later sold to Mr Ashley Throw of Ashbourne who realised this was both old and interesting and bought the figure with a view to conserving it.
Location of the find
The figure was dug up approximately 200 yards from the Church of St Oswald on Church St. St Oswald’s was started in 1240 by Hugh de Pateshull and replaced an earlier Saxon and possibly Norman church. A Norman crypt was discovered in 1913 and the earliest existing parts of the church are thought to date from 1160. If the figure is genuine it would seem to be a likely source for the figure.
The figure is just over a foot wide and 28 inches tall. It is free standing and falls into the monstrous category of Sheela Na Gigs. The head is the most striking aspect with a skull like face and round protruding eyes. The right side of the jawline is pronounced while the left is missing, the mouth is indicated by a thick raised line. On the chest ribs are evident even to the point of representing a skeleton. The legs are wide apart bent at the knee with the hands resting on the thighs. An oval hangs between the legs with a deep deliberate incision. There is no way that this could be mistaken for a penis and definitely represents a vulva.
There has been much argument as to whether the figure is a genuine Sheela na Gig i.e. one dating from the 12th century or an old/modern interpretation of one. There are nearby sites which have genuine figures namely Alstonefield with its female exhibitionist being devoured by a monster. Alstonefield also has a number of unfinished (non exhibitionist) sculptures that seem to indicate that there were sculptors working in the area in the 12th century. There is then a tradition of carving female exhibitionist figures in the area. Unfortunately due to the context figure was found in and the style of the head, it is hard to make a definite decision one way or the other as to it’s absolute authenticity.
A Monstrous figure
Ireland holds a number of Sheela Na Gig figures which have a monstrous aspect. In the UK the figures generally are less so. This one is a definite exception with obvious cadaver like features.
Herringbone masonry is still visible in the church indicating that a stone structure was here in Saxon times.
Fairly plain Romanesque arches survived a Victorian restoration the eastern arch holds some lightly incised zigzag decoration.The church has gone through a lot alteration during its lifetime with work ranging from the 11th and 12th centuries to the 19th century.
was the parish church of Isaac Newton, who was also baptised here in 1643. It is also the burial place of both his parents. It lies less than a mile away from his family home of Woolsthorpe Manor.
This figure is obviously damaged but there are number of features that suggest it was once a female exhibitionist. Firstly the figure is part of one of the Norman arches in the church which suggests a 12th century (possibly earlier) date. Secondly the figure has one remaining triangular left breast visible with the suggestion of the right still apparent despite the damage. Both arms are pointing downwards towards the centre of the figure and a remaining knee and foot can bee seen on the right hand side. The bottom of the figure is missing with a reasonably clean break across the body while the left hand arm and part of the shoulder are missing with a somewhat rougher break. The head is much too large for the body and has some damage on the right hand side. The remaining left eye is lentoid (a Romanesque feature), the nose is missing and the mouth is just visible. There is a line inscribed on the back of the head either indicating a headress or possibly hair. Facially the figure has something of a grim expression. While there is quite an amount of damage to the figure the remaining features and context seem to suggest that this was once a female exhibitionist.
Other Exhibitionist Figures
There are also a number of other later exhibitionist figures on the church. Two anus showers one complete with modest testicles and penis and a monstrous ithyphallic figure. Two of these can be found on the tower of the church with the smaller anus shower residing on the North West wall.
The figure on the romanesque/Norman arch in the church. Photo Copyright Tina Negus.
The main door to St Mary’s church Wroxham, Norfolk holds two, blue stained figures which while splay legged are not exhibitionist figures. They serve as good example of figures which should be exhibitionist but in fact aren’t (compare to the splayed legged figure at Lower Swell). There is however another explanation of the figure which is related to the Sheela Na Gig phenomenon. Their feet appear to be somewhat fin like which may mean that the figures depict Melusine.
Melusine or the Double Tailed Mermaid
The double tailed mermaid is another religious sculptural motif which can be found all over Europe. Unlike the Sheela Na Gig which is more or less a 12th century phenomenon this motif persists into later periods as well. In fact it is still is use today with it’s most widespread, somewhat sanitized, incarnation being the Starbucks logo. Are the Wroxham figures actually mermaids? The fin like feet do tend to lend weight to this argument.
All images By Charlesdrakew (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons