The church of St Peter in Northampton is a fine example of a 12th century church and more importantly for our purposes a veritable cornucopia of exhibitionist and near exhibitionist figures. This church has seemingly gone unnoticed in by most books on the subject despite being in the middle of one of Britain’s major towns. The church also holds an exhibitionist male being eaten by a monster on one of the capitals in the church. Unfortunately the church was locked when we visited it and I was unable to get a picture. Photos of the capital can be seen on the CRSBI site at http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/ed/nh/nhstp/i25307.htm and athttp://www.beyond-the-pale.org.uk/zxNorthampton.htm at Anthony Weir’s site. The exhibitionist corbels form part of a much larger corbel table which is detailed here http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/ed/nh/nhstp/ on the CRSBI site. There are many replacement corbels on church but all of the ones detailed below appear to be originals.
These figures reside in the village of Moulton, Suffolk and were first reported by Dr Ron Baxter in the newsletter of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in the British Isles. The sculpture consists of a loose slab which at the time of writing is stored in the vestry under shelf. It shows a male and female figure carved in relief with an ill defined square floating between them. Both figures are jug eared and the male figure’s hands are over large. The female figure’s hands gesture toward the groin which has been damaged at some point. what remains of the right hand appears to be cupped but this may jus be down to the damage on the figure. The remains left hand appear to be holding back the left thigh. These positions are similar to other exhibitionist figures the left hand holds the thigh and the right indicates to the vulva. Unfortunately due to the damage on the figure there is no indication of a vulva. If one did exist then it would have been a fairly modest affair. If the hand was cupping then this unlike most other figures which are usually pointing to the vulva.
The lower half of the male figure is also damaged but there appear to be the remains of a penis hanging to the ground between the squatting legs. The hands are raised in the orans position as if praying. The figure is quite blackened so it is hard to make out any remaining features. The object between the figures is something of a mystery. It has been carved quite deliberately and appears to have a small section missing either deliberately or due to damage. Neither of figures is now overtly exhibitionist but from the poses and features which are similar to other exhibitionist figures it seems likely that they once were. The church is quite a grand affair for such small a village and the current building dates from the perpendicular and decorated periods. There was however a Norman incarnation the remains of which can still be seen in the fabric of the church. A number of later gargoyles and green men adorn the church exterior. It seems that this slab is a fairly recent find as it was not recorded in a study of the church in 1937 or in Pevsner’s 1961 or 1975 editions. Pevsner took pains to record sheela na gigs so it would have been something that would usually appear in the entry for the church. In fact the first mention of the slab appears in D.P. Mortlock’s The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches from 19881 .It would be interesting to find out when exactly the slab first appeared in the church.
Anthony Weir makes a comparison between these two figures and other figures in the church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand in Poitiers, France. The position of the hands is nearly identical the only difference being the female figure holds one hand up (another gesture common to sheela na gigs). This carving has been damaged too.
More information on the church and these figures can be fount at the CRSBI site.
This carving is housed in the Edinburgh’s Royal Museum and is described as “a woman giving birth”. The figures originate from a 12thC church in Kirknewton which was demolished in 1780. The piece is a voussoir which possibly formed part of an arch or doorway. The sign next to the figure notes the close links between Scottish and English church architecture in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Having now seen this figure close up I’m more convinced that the carving has sexual overtones. There are a number points that would possibly put the “birth” theory into doubt. Firstly the piece originates from the 12th century where we know there is a tradition of exhibitionist carving on churches. Birthing scenes are virtually unknown the only other example being a corbel in Romsey which is thought to be a Victorian copy of a 12thC corbel. This corbel however is completely different in style being a head protruding from between the corbels legs. Secondly the female figure is smiling, it’s more likely that birth would be portrayed as a painful experience in line with the bible.
Genesis 3:16 To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.”
Thirdly the female figure has her hand between the other figure’s legs on the groin. On the underside of the sculpture the legs of the figures are intertwined, this would be a little strange if it were a birthing scene. The left hand figure is almost certainly male. The striations on the head of the left figure indicating hair stretch up to the lip and chin representing a beard. The lack of breasts, which are present on the right figure, would also seem to indicate that the figure is meant to be a male.
Whereas no doubt men did play a part in births in medieval times depictions of birth would be far more likely to display a midwife rather than a male figure. We also have to remember that a male figure in a birth scene is perfectly reasonable from a 21stC viewpoint, however what we are looking at was carved in the 12thC. Taking this into account along with the prevalence of sexual imagery in 12thC church carving a sexual interpretation would seem to make more sense than a birthing one.
The ruined chapel at Kilvickeon, dedicated to Ernan, son of Eoghan nephew of St. Columba, near Scoor on the Ross of Mull is thought to date from the late 12th or early 13th centuries. This places it just in the time period when most UK mainland sheelas seem to have been carved. If this figure is a sheela then it would be a fairly late example. The figure is embedded eight-feet above the ground on the east wall of the church The figure is about 16 inches high and around 4 inches wide at the bottom. The remains of the head extend forward several inches giving the figure a feeling of depth. The right side of the head appears to be missing. What appear to be the weathered remains of arms reach forward to a hold an shallow oval depression on the front of the figure.
Is this a sheela na gig?
Once again we have a very worn figure which is very hard to interpret due to the weathering. However the oval depression held open by the vestigial arms and the seemingly hunched shoulders do indicate that the figure may have once been an exhibitionist. However in it’s current state it is impossible to state with any certainty that it was orginally a sheela na gig but it does have more going for it than a lot of other worn figures.
My thanks go to Marc Calhoun for supplying the above information and the pictures of this less well known and remote figure.
In 1050 Edward the Confessor, unhappy with the relatively obscure location of the See of Devon and Cornwall moved it from Crediton in Devon
to the more important location of Exeter. After the Norman conquest the second Norman bishop Warelwast, a nephew of William the Conqueror started construction of a new cathedral between 1112-1114. Construction continued throughout the 12th century with small hiatus caused by a fire during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. It is to this Romanesque phase of building that unusual two towers of Exeter and the sheela na gig figures belong.
The figures can be found on the north side of the south tower. They are extremely hard to see with the naked eye and can only be found with some sort of maginification. The best place to view the figures is by standing at the back of the large green outside the cathedral to the right of north tower. You have to look at the corbels on the face of the far tower over the roof the cathedral. The fact that the corbels are only around foot wide combined with the angle and distance at which they are viewed really does mean that you will need binoculars or a long lens on your camera. The in situ photos below were taken with a 1000mm lens. The figures consist of a definite female figure, a definite male figure and a slightly ambiguous figure which on the balance of probabilities is likely to be female.
All of the figures are crudely carved and now very worn, but even taking into account their current state even when new the figures would have been crude. This is curious as other figures while still not of the highest quality are better carved than the exhibitionists.
One of the more likely theories to explain exhibitionist figures is that they served a didactic purpose warning against sins of the flesh. Given that they they are nigh invisible from the ground a didactic purpose seems unlikely. What of the apotropaic theory as protection against evil? Again this seems unlikely as an explanation as the location does not readlily fit in with the theory. Unlike Oxford the figures are not over a gateway or facing outward, in fact the figures face inward towards the cathedral rather than outwards protecting against external evil. Despite being in plain view the figures are to all intents and purposes hidden. Could this mean that they are “pagan” survivals secretly hidden among the Christian carvings? Again this is unlikely, though crude the figures are similar to other romanesque carvings which are always found in a Christian context.
It is hard to ascribe any meaning to these carvings other than decoration like the rest of the corbels on the cathedral.
Thanks go to Thomas Cadbury for allowing me to visit the museum stores to photograph the casts.
The museum is not currently displaying the figures but is well worth a visit anyway
The Church of St Stephens in located in the village of Etton, just 5 miles north west of the centre of Peterborough. Christopher Seal reported this figure to John Harding as a Sheela na Gig. The figure is located on a corbel table high on the top of the southern face of the tower. The corbel table lies just below the spire. It’s interesting to note that the sheela is unlike any of the other carving on the table which consists mostly of heads, foliate symbols including the fleur de lys and geometric forms. It is by far the largest piece and consists of the whole body on it’s side (The Buncton figure also lies on it’s side.). It also has the curious feature of a flat head. This would seem to indicate that figure was meant to be upright possibly supporting something but is very tightly integrated with the rest of the corbel table and appears to be in situ, which makes the flat head something of a mystery. The present church was originally built in the 13th century but there are records of the church in the 12th Century Peterborough Chronicle. The parish itself dates back even further and is thought to have been a religious centre for thousands of years1. The style of the church is Early English but as the church book says it is a fine example of Early Early English2. If this figure is contemporary with the building of the church, which it appears to be, this would originate it in the transitional period from Romanesque to Early English and would make this a later example of the sheela na gig motif.
Mrs Anne Cowen the church warden was kind enough to show me around the church and dug out a record of the church furnishing done by NADFAS from 1992-1994. The book lists the figure as a sheela na gig ascribes it the usual “fertility figure” label.
The farm next to the church is the birthplace of Daniel Defoe’s father.
1. St Stevens Etton, Peterborough, Cambs by Christopher Crossley. NADFAS Record in church.
2. Lord Norwich “The Architecture of Southern England” after Christopher Crossley. “Pure unaltered 13th century churches are all too rare in England; to find one as complete as St Stephen’s is therefore no small cause for celebration. It looks as if it has not been touched since it was built. Here is Early English… and early Early English at that… ” (It is worth mentioning here that the church shows obvious signs of modification and this fact is mentioned in the church history. The “untouched” status Lord Norwich ascribes to the church may be a little wishful thinking JRH)
The relief shows a woman lifting her skirt and clipping her pubic hair with a large pair of shears. There is an inscription on the carving which is now damaged
The carving was removed from its original position believed to be above one of the gates to the to the city by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in the 1500s who wanted his eyes “only to gaze on the stars of Heaven”.
The relief is said to date from around 1185 and there are a number of theories about who the carving represents all of which are connected to Frederick Barbarossa who sacked the city in 1162.
This figure now in the Castello Sforzesco, Museum of Ancient Art in Milan.
Beatrice I, Countess of Burgundy wife of Frederick Barbarossa
This interpretation comes from the artist Francesco Pirovano …, Silvestri in 1822. He holds that it is a satirical depiction of the wife of Frederick Barbarossa who had razed Milan. There is a further piece of Milanese folklore about the empress Beatrice. During the seige of the city in 1158 the empress was captured by the Milanese and was humiliated by being paraded around the city on a donkey. When Barbarossa captured the city he took his revenge on the magistrates by forcing them to take a fig from a donkey’s anus using only their teeth.
The Eastern Empress Leobissa
Another story holds that the Porta got its name after the Milanese delegation to the Eastern Empress in Constantinople Leobissa was refused their requests for financial assistance following Frederick Barbarossa’s sack of Milan in 1162. The Milanese erected the marble bas-relief to spite the empress and affixed it to this Easternmost and thus Constantinople-facing gate as a further insult.
An exhibitionist who saved the city or defied an army
Canon Carlo Torre wrote another explantion of the figure which again includes Barbarossa… When Barbarossa was about to sack the city an unnamed woman standing on a balcony near the eastern gate performed the same gesture. Barbarrosa seeing this ordered his men to lay down their arms. The statue was carved to commemorate the woman and the “shaming” of Barbarossa. This motif is interesting as it parallels a much later story in the Irish Times where a woman averted violence between a warring group of men by showing her sex.
Unfortunately the inscription accompanying the sculpture, much consumed, there is a great help. On the stone you can read only “(…) EST PORT T (…) CTONSE”, difficult integration and translation.
This figure was discovered during the building of St Mary’s church Egremont in the 1800’s. While the current building dates from that period the old church was said to include elements of Norman and Early English architecture. The figure was documented by Dr C.A. Parker in his paper “Early Sculpted Stones at Gosforth, Ponsonby, St Bridget’s, Haile and Egremont” published in 1902. The photo to the right comes from this publication. A comparison between this figure and the Donna Impudica figure in Milan was made by Richard N Bailey in his paper “Apotropaic Figures in Milan and North-West England” published in 1983 in Folklore vol. 94;i Both figures hold what appear to be shears and are in the act of cutting their pubic hair. In this article Baliey mentions that the figure was not mentioned in a later book by Parker in 1926 and states that the figure was already lost at that time.
However a recent online guide “Ghosts in the Lake District” written by Tony Walker (http://www.ghoststories.org.uk) mentions a sheela na gig at Egremont church.
“in the churchyard near the west door are fragments of sculpture. One of them is very interesting in that it is very old and looks very much like what, in Ireland, they call a Sheela na Gig. It’s difficult to make out, but it seems to be a barbaric carving of a female figure with both hands holding her vulva apart.”
Unfortunately this guide is no longer available online. It’s interesting that the above description does not exactly match the figure on the left with both hands holding the vulva apart.
I contacted Mr. Walker and tried to confirm that the carving to the left was one of the ones mentioned but unfortunately he could not remember them as he had visited the church a number of years earlier. I also contacted the vicar of the church but unfortunately no further information was available. If anyone knows any more about these carvings then please let me know as it would be nice to re-discover this lost carving. For another lost sheela see the St Ives figure.
A Crude Carving
One of the more puzzling aspects of exhibitionist figures, especially sheela na gigs, is that the quality of carving can vary considerably. In the Egremont sheela we have an example of a fairly crude, “stick figure” representation. The usual explanation for this is that the figure is “ancient” and that our predecessors lacked the skill of later artists. However we should be careful about equating crude with old. 12th century sculpture varied considerably in its quality. For example the sheelas at Lower Swell and Church Stretton are fairly crude when compared to Kilpeck or Holdgate however we can be fairly certain that they all date from around the same period i.e. the 12th century. Anthony Weir has put forward a “non sculptor sculptors” theory where the sculptor carving the figure was making it for ritual purposes (either apotropaic or linked to fertility) and was not a trained sculptor. Another more prosaic reason for the variable quality could be down to economic reasons i.e. highly trained sculptors were too expensive. There is some evidence to suggest that the reason for the crude quality of carving of the Church Stretton sheela is down to economic reasons rather than the carving being “ancient”.
Unfortunately the Copgrove figure is now badly worn and almost impossible to photograph. It’s very hard to make out the outlines of the figure even with the naked eye. Known locally as the “Devil Stone” the figure has been regarded as being of Romano British origin. It consists of a stick like figure with a large head holding a a circle in one hand next to the figure is a T shape which has been interpreted as both an axe or a tau cross. This may have been a later addition. Between the legs of the figure there is a slit which could be vaginal but equally could be phallic given the style and primitive nature of the carving. The figure has been moved a few times. According to Anderssen the figure was originally located on North Chancel wall but was moved to the North east corner. Recently it has been moved again, this time to the inside of the church to prevent further weathering. Taking into account the primitive nature of the carving this could be one of the oldest sheelas in Britain. However it may be misleading to go solely by the style as it may equally be the doodling of a medieval mason.
This figure is also reported as being in Scholes. The figure is unique in the UK and Ireland due to it’s location on a font. The font is thought to be Norman and while the carving borders on crude the motifs are similar to those found in othe Romanesque sculpture. The round headed blind arcading would seem to suggest the Romanesque although this is open to interpretation. The exhibitionist figure is one of a series of human and abstract/foliate carvings contained within the round headed blind arcading. The figures appear in the intersection of the arches giving the heads their pointed appearance. The other figures on the font include a round headed figure and a bearded figure with a pointed head.The sheela na gig figure is different from the rest in that its legs with its in-turned feet escape the confines of the arcading and are carved on the base of the font. While the execution is fairly crude the deeply carved cleft between the legs, as well as both hands gesturing towards the cleft make this an unequivocal exhibitionist or “sheela na gig”.