Work on St Magnus cathedral started in 1137. The Cathedral’s founder was Earl Rognvald who supervised the earliest stages of the building during the bishopric of William the Old of Orkney (1102 – 1168). Between 1154 and 1472, Orkney was ecclesiastically under the Norwegian archbishop of Nidaros (Trondheim). Interestingly Nidaros cathedral also has a sheela na gig figure.
The figure is situated on the on the south west pillar of the presbytery. It is quite worn but originally would have been quite grotesque with a gaping toothless oblong mouth and what may have been a pointed head. The remains of the eyes suggest that they would have orginally been wide and staring. The remains of the right arm gesture towards the vulva. The figure’s hand is damaged but may have obscured the upper part of the vulva. The right hand gestures towards the head in a gesture not dissimilar to that of Roman depictions of the goddess Venus. Unlike the Venus figure however the sheela does not appear to have hair.
A sheela na gig at Ely Cathedral has been recorded for sometime. It gets a mention in Images of Lust after the work of professor George Zarnecki. However it turns out that there are two very similar female exhibitionist figures on the cathedral. This discovery came about from members of the Sheela na gig mailinglist visiting the cathedral to photograph the figure and comparing their results. The first members to visit the cathedral informed the list that sheela was extremely difficult to photograph as you needed to be in the Bishops private garden to get the best view. Other members of the list were puzzled at this as all you had to do was hop over a small wall and photograph the figure from a public green. Photographs of the figures were of low quality mainly due to the height of the figures on the cathedral’s clerestory. When they were compared they seemed to be of the same figure taking into account differing angles of view. However when the surrounding masonry and neighbouring corbels were compared it became obvious that the photographs were in fact of two different figures. Further research showed that the figures were in fact on opposite sides of the cathedral one being on the North clerestory while the other is on the South clerestory. The fact that the cathedral has two very similar female exhibitionist figures does not seem to be a well known fact. This is further borne out by the entries for the Ely corbels at the Courtauld institute’s CRSBI site where the North figure is not listed as being exhibitionist. As you can see from the picture on the left it most definitely is. Further discussions on the sheela na gig mailing list showed that some members had visited the north figure while others had visited the south figure. Both groups coming away having seen the Ely sheela na gig.
The French Connection
It’s thought French sculptors had a hand in the creation of Ely cathedral. This influence can be seen by comparing these figures to another exhibitionist in Vaux sur Aure France. The original picture can be found here on the Hortus Deliciarum site in France (French text. The website is dedicated to exhibitionist figures in France)
A similarly styled figure in Vaux sur Aure in France. Photograph used by persmission of Guillaume Lelièvre.
The South side exhibitionist figure (right) this picture from the CRSBI site clearly shows its exhibitionist nature. The south side figure is only viewable from the Bishop’s private residence which is obviously not open to the public.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Weir
The black arrow indicates the approximate position of the sheela na gig on the North side of the cathedral 1. Clerestory. The upper part of the nave, transepts, and choir of a church, containing windows… or …An upper portion of a wall containing windows for supplying natural light to a building
This figure used to reside on the external corner of the South transept of the Nidarosdomen Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway. It was replaced in 1992 with a modern copy and the original is now on display in the Archbishops Palace Museum attached to the cathedral. The sheela was published by Jørgen Andersen in the artcle “Konsollernes verden” in Kunst og Kultur Nr. 1 in 1996. This figure is one of three alleged sheela na gigs in Norway, The other carvings are at Stiklestad and Sakshaug although the Sakshaug carving is somewhat suspect as it appears to be more of a pine cone than sheela na gig. This sheela was in all likelihood carved by an English sculptor as we shall see below.
The History of the Cathedral
King Olaf Haraldsson (also known as Olav) now St Olaf was killed at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Tradition has it that the high altar of the cathedral marks the spot where he was buried. In 1031 the King was declared a saint and pilgrims started to visit his grave. Work started on building the first stone church at the site around 1070. This building was commissioned by King Olav the Gentle the nephew of St Olav and it is thought that English craftsmen were employed in its construction. Parts of the cathedral are in the Early English style.
For more information on English influence in the area see the page on Stiklestad.
English and French Influence
The cathedral bears some striking similarities to Lincoln cathedral which it strongly resembles. The romanesque corbels on the church also seem to be English in origin as can be seen below. A broken dragon head hood terminal now housed in the Archbishops museum is very similar to those found England. It also thought that English masons and artists had a hand in building most of the 20 or so Romanesque churches in the Trondelag area.
The Sheela na gig
As you can see from this angle the figure is unequivocally exhibitionist with one finger seemingly insterted into the vulva. However when viewed from the front which is the angle the corbel is most likely to be seen from it would seem that the vulva would be hidden in shadow. Kjartan Hauglid who supplied the pictures for this page assures me that the exhibitionist nature of the carving is visible from the ground. Nevertheless this figure is definitely one of the more modest sheelas unlike the “megavulvic” examples at Kilpeck and Oaksey.
Being “only visible from below” is a feature of some other sheelas, for instance the ones at Stoke Sub Hamdon and on St John’s at Devizes can only be seen to be exhibitionist from directly below. This begs the question that if figure is not overtly exhibitionist then why are the sexual features present at all? From the photograph below it seems that even when it was newly carved the height of the sculpture and the butress below it would have prevented its exhibitionist nature from being seen. Non overt or overly highly placed sheela na gigs would seem to be detract from the “warning against lust” theory put forward by Anthony Weir and James Jerman. If the figure cannot be seen to be exhibitionist then how does serve as a method of instruction? Conversely these non overt sheelas may be being used in an apotropaic way to avert evil in somewhat more quiet and non obtrusive manner than their more blatant sisters. The figures at Oxford and Stanton St Quintin were and are high up and barely visible from below.
Thanks go to Kjartan Hauglid for supplying the photographs and much of the information about the sheela.
My thanks go to Peter Connor and Malcolm Haigh for bringing this figure to light.
The figure is located in the church of St Mary at Woodkirk Yorkshire.
The church has a number of Romanesque features but the main body of the church is thought to date to the Early English period. Anthony Weir author of Images of Lust is of the opinion that the figure dates from the Early English period.
The figure is unusual in that it does not appear to be corbel or appear to server some
other architectural function. At the time of writing (21 Nov 2009) the figure is in storage.
It is quite plump with a pronounced vulva with the left hand reaching down
to pull it apart. The right hand is held to the side of the neck possibly indicating that it
is holding its hair though the top of the figures head appears to be bald. The hand
gesture is not dissimilar to that found in Roman depictions of the goddess Venus (see below) who is usually depicted with the right hand holding the hair. Given that a Romanesque carving
incorporates many classical motifs this comparison may not be without merit. Another carving
from Kirknewton also has a hand to head gesture but in this case the hand is that of an accompanying male figure.
This figure is approximately nine miles away from another unusual sheela na gig
figure at Cleckheaton which would seem to indicate that there was a local tradition
of carving these figures.
These figures lie in the church of St Margaret in Wolston near Coventry. The figures in question are carved on a capital on the west side of the crossing arch (the arch facing the congregation). The figures consist of a female splay legged figure with a deep wide cleft in the groin area. The cleft also seems to contain the remains of a smaller oval within it. Its arm is being pulled by a less defined figure on the right. When viewing the figure in the church the splay legged figure appears to have a massively oversized head with the eyes at the top. As we can see from the photographs this is not the case. Directly above the female’s head is a monstrous corner mask which appears to be eating the the figure below. The right hand figure (sexless but vaguely male) touches this mask with its right hand. The female figure appears to have a head of hair and the right hand is placed on top of the head seemingly in the mouth of the mask. There seem to be the faint remains of a face on the figure. The female figure’s left arm appears to be holding the groin of the right hand figure or at least is resting its hand on the top of the leg. The left hand side of the capital holds the upper torso of a figure with lower half consisting of some fairly crude knotwork or vegetation. The sheela’s leg disappears into this knotwork.
The left hand capital opposite is damaged but consists of two figures either side of a cross possibly depicting the crucifixion.
A damaged sheela?
As can be seen from the photograph on the right, the cleft between the legs is wide and uneven. The smaller oval shadow is a result of the lighting but there does seem be a slightly deeper more regular oval within the wider cleft. Given the quality of the carving it may be simply that this wide cleft is the sculptor’s execution of a vulva. However it is equally as likely that at some point the figure has been damaged and the cleft widened. The damage however may not be intentional. Church records show that the tower collapsed in the 1700s so the damage to this and the other capital may be a result of this collapse. The church history also mentions that the arches may have been reconstructed at this time.1
Visible from the church yard are the remains of a Norman motte known as Brandon Castle. Brandon being the neighboring village. Hubert Baldran granted the church to the abbey of St. Pierre-sur-Dives between 1086 and 10941 and the Verdon family held Wolston during the 12th century. The castle is known to have been garrisoned in 1195. Excavations done in the 1940s suggest that the keep was rectangular. There is no evidence to suggest what the keep looked like but it is thought to be similar in design to Hopton Castle in Shropshire, much of which stands today. Once again we have an exhibitionist in a church which is intimately connected with a stronghold of the local lord. i.e. the church would have been the personal chapel of the local lord. This is similar to Kilpeck, Holdgate, Devizes and possibly Bredwardine in Shropshire.
This little known sheela na gig resides on the tower of the Parish church of Twywell near Kettering. You can see it as you walk through the main gate of the churchyard to the left of the clock on the main tower. This sheela has not been published in any of the major books on Sheelas and came to light on the CRSBI site1.
The sheela is of the acrobatic variety with legs held to the head, with the feet facing forward in an almost impossible position. The torso of the carving is made up entirely of the vulva with the legs directly emanating from it. Unusually the figure has a small but deeply drilled anus as well. Conversely we could say that the torso has been slit, but the presence of the anus would seem to suggest that the torso slit is meant to represent the vulva. Again we have an overly large head in comparison to the body.
It is interesting to note that Professor Zarnecki thinks that the kings head on the South doorof the church is similar to those found on Monks Doorway and north transept doorway of Ely cathedral. As we know Ely Cathedral also holds two sheela na gig carvings2. It is also worth noting however that these differ in style to the Twywell sheela.
A few corbels over to the right from the sheela we have an example of a Romanesque mouth puller.
Is interesting that this sheela has escaped notice for such a long time especially when the church has received the attentions of Professor Zarnecki.
These two figures can be found inside St Catherines church Tugford either side of the main door. The sheela on the right is in a better state than the one on the left. It bears a passing familiarity to the Sheela at Kilpeck.
The right sheela (see right) is squatting in an upright position it’s tongue protrudes and both hands are gesturing to the vagina. The right arm is beneath the right knee while the left arm appears to be in front of the left leg. Due to damage on the figure this hard to make out there also appears to be damage to the left knee.
The one on the left is recumbent (see below), lying on it’s left side. The left sheela is badly weathered and it is difficult to make out details on the carving. This figure has always been referred to as a sheela but it is very hard to make out any details from the photograph on the right there appears to be faint facial features and the figure appears to be hugging something with it’s left shoulder hunched up against the left cheek. Its very hard to determine any features on this figure let alone a definitive sex so the sheela epithet may not be justified.
Both of the sheelas are above head height on wall making close examination difficult.
The Tugford, Holdgate and Church Stretton Sheelas are all in the same vicinity. Holdgate and Tugford being a mile distant from each while Church Stretton is about 10 miles away. The Diddlebury figures are approximately 2 miles away.
It was Margaret Murray (1934) who first thought the figure located in St Peter’s Torksey was a Sheela na Gig, as a result, Andersen accepted this on her authority. In her account ‘Female Fertility Figures’ Murray writes:
‘At Torksey, in Lincolnshire, the figure is so worn and battered, although it is inside the church, that it is impossible to say whether the breasts were originally represented; the pose of the arms, however, leaves no doubt that this also is a Sheila-na-gig, though possibly of a late type’.
From Roman to medieval times Torksey was a very busy port set on a canal 80 miles from the sea, and much larger than Nottingham was at the time. But by the late 14th century the area started to decline but not before a small Cistercian Nunnery, and a Priory were set up. It seems St Peters was one of three churches, and served as a chapel to the Priory just to the east of the present church. Of these constructions nothing now remains, but it seems reasonable to assume the figure was formally located in the Priory buildings, and later moved inside the present church. St Peter’s Church was rebuilt during 1821-22 when the figure was probably painted with whitewash. According to Mr Burgess the Church Warden with was done by Victorian attitudes towards Pagan subjects. But it was during the restorations the vicar of the day insisted on putting the figure on display in the nave.
The figure is located inside the church, about 3 to 4 meters up on the west corner of the south wall, and measures roughly 60cm high by 22cm wide, and is framed in an arch. The whitewash is so thick, a lot of the original features are difficult to make out. However she seems to have two ‘pecked’ eyes, a gaping mouth, with a short stubby nose, and from the shape of her head may indicate some hair. The arms which seem to gesture towards her lower abdomen are mis-shaped, and her upper left arm seems to be missing. She is standing, although you may be forgiven for thinking she is seated. Although not clearly represented the genitals, or rather lack of them suggest she is female. Although the genitals of the figure are not evident, Andersen claims:
‘Like a few figures Torksey, for instance this Sheela is a standing figure with arms and hands down the sides of the body. There is no gesture towards the genitals, but these are very clearly marked, and sagging belly and genitals repeat an ugly feature of many Irish Sheelas.’
In her book ‘Explore Green Men’, published in 2003, Mercia MacDermot reported the presence of a ‘Sheela’ and a phallic male on the gatehouse of Tickhill Castle, just a few kilometers west of Austerfield. The castle located 9km south of Doncaster, is on private land which is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster who have refused access to the public for a number of years. Although blocked by a large wooden gate the medieval gatehouse and its carvings can be clearly seen from Castlegate Road. Viewing is difficult during the summer months due to dense tree foliage.
The castle at Tickhill was built by Roger de Busli (alternate spellings abound and include Busili, Buslim,Buslin, Buesli and more commonly Bully) from the land given to him by William I for his assistance in the invasion of 1066. Roger de Busli was a major landholder in the Domesday book holding 174 estates in Nottinghamshire. His seat of power was at Blythe but Tickhill was his main castle. Originally, a Motte and Bailey the castle was added to throughout the years, culminating in the 17th century Manor House. The curtain wall, and gatehouse was constructed during early 12th century (1129-30?), and the barbican added in the 13th century.
The gatehouse is decorated with four pediments inlaid with small crude statuettes and slabs. The carvings are considered of late 11th or early 12th century ornamentation. There are five human figures amongst the decorations but of the two are of particular interest.
To the right is a rather squat figure which could be MacDermot’s suggested Sheela, where both arms held down the trunk, come to rest at the lower abdominal area. Two short legs are held straight, and at an angle of the body. Although an outline of a head is just evident, no features can be seen.
The figure to the left is more complex, and could be male or female. It has a long slender body, its large head contains a broad nose, and the position of the two nares is evident, as are two small eyes. Two arms are held close two the body and come to rest, cupping the genital area, where fingers are clearly discernible. If a female, the pudenda consists of a circular hole, and like the Church Stretton figure seems to contain a stone. The rather large pelvic area, which may suggest the figure is female, is supported by two short legs. If the figure is male, the large pelvic area becomes the figure’s hands (a little too large when compared to the size of the figures arms however). In effect the large hands are holding the base of the penis. The hole may be a socket where a penis was inserted. Both figures are rather worn, and it is difficult to be certain.
Although fairly common in Ireland, secular/castle Sheelas are very scarce on the British mainland. The only known other known example can be found in Haddon Hall. However while sheelas on castles may be rare in Britain sheelas associated with castles are more common. Kilpeck, Devizes, Holdgate and the possible sheela figure at Bredwardine are all castle churches and are intimately connected with their accompanying castles often forming part of the castle complex.
Interestingly a definite sheela na gig lies around 5 miles to west in the village of Austerfield in church built by another member of the Bully family, John de Bully. This figure, dating from around the same period as the gatehouse, adds weight to the likelyhood of these worn figures being exhibitionist with local sculptors being familiar with the exhibitionist motif. Like Kilpeck and Holdgate these castles were the main castles for their lords and all are connected with sheela na gig carvings. Tickhill is another example where we have (possible) exhibitionist figures associated with the main castle of a powerful local Norman lord. It seems that sheelas and status are connected in some way (this idea is currently being explored by Dr Theresa Oakley).
Text John Harding and Keith Jones
Photographs copyright Keith Jones
Other worn figures on the castle the last with some facial features still evident
The following information and photographs were kindly supplied by Marc Calhoun.
“This figure is located 10 feet above the ground on the west end of the south wall of Muckairn Church in the village of Taynuilt (NN 005 310). The figure is roughly 2 feet high, and 1 foot across. The arms are missing, the eyes are closed, and its mouth appears to be open. The stumpy legs make it appear to be squatting, and there is a hole at the base that may mean it is an anus shower.
Referred to as a Sheela in The Sheela-Na-Gigs of Ireland & Britain (item 45 in the Scotland section of the catalogue), where the figure is described as a ‘plump and undemonstrative goddess figure.’
Referred to as a Sheela in Argyll and the Islands; An Illustrated Architectural Guide, (item 115). This source dates it to 13th century and says it was removed from the late medieval church of Killespickerill which once stood on the site.”
This figure though damaged and worn does have some evidence to indicate that it was originally an exhibitionist of some sort. A hole presumably indicating the anus is very much in evidence and there is some damage around the groin area. The figure has the remains of two fairly thick legs and is quite rotund. The face is still evident and the head appears to be round and hairless. It is hard to say whether or not this was once a sheela na gig or a male exhibitionist but its reasonable to assume that it was an anus shower of some type. If we surmise that this figure is a survival from the earliest church “Killespickerill” dating from around 1228 then it would put the figure just outside the correct period for a sheela na gig yet not so far outside to make it impossible.