Wroxham

Wroxham Church Doorway Captials
On the lower right there is a splayed legged figure which either an acrobat or possibly a Melusine figure.
The main door to the church with twin figures either side.
The main door to the church with twin figures either side.

The Figures

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

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Ely

The Figures

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)

Ely France Figure

A similarly styled figure in Vaux sur Aure in France. Photograph used by persmission of Guillaume Lelièvre.

 

SheelaElyCRSBI

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.

Ely Priors Door

Photo courtesy of Anthony Weir

SheelaElyPosition

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

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Litchborough

The Litchborough Figure
The Litchborough Figure Image copyright Paul Ellerton
Litchborough Heads
Litchborough Heads Image copyright Paul Ellerton

Thanks go to Paul Ellerton for sending me these pictures

 

The Figure

Unfortunately there is not a lot of detail about this church. The information booklet in the church says that it was started in the 12th century and the carvings could originate from that period. The figure consists of two heads, the left has its eyes being pulled by a smaller figure while right is accompanied by an apparently ithyphallic male figure. This figure appears to have a hand holding a massively exaggerated penis. The fingers of the hand appear to be broken seemingly by weathering.

 

The otherwise quite plain Litchborough church
The otherwise quite plain St Martin’s church at Litchborough

 

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Wolston

The Wolston Sheela Na Gig
The Wolston Sheela Na Gig

The 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

Brandon Castle

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.

1 CRSBI page on Wolston accessed 21/10/2006 http://www.crsbi.ac.uk

Close up of the sheela's head and corner mask. Note the faint suggestion of eyes on the sheela's head and what appears to be hair on the left hand side.
Close up of the sheela’s head and corner mask.
Note the faint suggestion of eyes on the sheela’s head and what appears to be hair on the left hand side.

 

Side view of the figure
Side view of the figure

 

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Melbourne

The Melbourne Figure
The Melbourne Figure

The Figure

This figure resides in the large parish church of Melbourne Derbyshire. It is mentioned in Ghosts and Legends of the Peak District and Images of Lust.Images of Lust does not categorise it as a Sheela but describes it as “near exhibitionist”. The booklet in the church however describes it as a sheela and assigns the usual “fertility symbol” meaning to it. The church is richly carved and in a good state of preservation. “Images of Lust” includes the “miser” and the “luxuria” figures. The book describes the male luxuria figure as being “once exhibitionist” but in my opinion it never has been, have a look at the photo and judge for yourself.  The miser and luxuria figures are duplicated on the side door of the church but have suffered greater weathering. On the main door the luxuria is on the left while on the side door the luxuria is on the right.

The rest of the church is fascinating. Built in the 12th century it is extremely large for a parish church almost a mini cathedral. No one knows quite why it is so large as the parish has never been big enough to need such a large place of worship. The size of the church would seem to suggest that this was a high status building and the quality and number of carvings in the church also attest to this. There are a number pentagrams incised on various stones in the church which are thought to be masons marks. There are also many other Romanesque carvings in the church well worth a look at including a bestial cat. There is also a well preserved medieval painting of a demon. The church has it’s own website at  http://www.melbourneparishchurch.co.uk/.

The carving itself has some very sheela like characteristics the splayed leg position and the positioning of the arms is very much like the Darley Dale and Haddon Hall sheelas which are also in Derbyshire. The carving also has foliage spewing from its mouth which makes more like a “green man” but this characteristic is not unknown in Sheelas as well take for instance the South Tawton figure in Devon. The figure is not human and has more in common with “green man” characteristics than those of a sheela. In the end this will have to go under the “nearly but not quite” column of Sheela carvings.

Other Carvings

The Melbourne Cat
The Melbourne Cat

SheelaMelbourneLuxury

SheelaMelbourneMiser

Worn splay legged male
Worn splay legged male
Worn miser
Worn miser
SheelaMelbournePentagram
Pentacle masons mark

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Whittlesford

The Whittlesford Sheela Na Gig with male figure
The Whittlesford Sheela Na Gig with male figure

The Figures

This sheela can be found on the window arch directly below the clock on the tower of the Church of St. Mary and St. Michael Cambridgeshire. Uniquely this figure is joined by a crouching phallic male figure which form the window arch. Interestingly this male figure is very much like figure that can be found at Abson near Bristol Avon even down the to position and orientation. The sheela figure itself has a deeply incised vaginal cavity which she holds open with one hand the other hand seems to be disappearing behind the leg of the male figure. One finger points to the clitoral area and there appears to be a slight suggestion of the clitoris at the top of the vagina. Both legs are held apart and the there appears to be a suggestion of breasts. The carving is not as clear as you might think and is not immediately visible from from below due to it’s height on the tower. In fact if you weren’t aware of it’s presence then you may not notice it’s existence. However once you do see the figure and it’s companion then the effect is quite shocking.

A Sexual Sheela

In the arguments over whether sheelas are sexual or apotropaic in nature this figure is often cited as evidence in favour of the sexual theory. It is hard to see anything other than a sexual meaning to this carving with the erect penis of the male figure and open vulva of the female. The elongated body of the male figure suggests a monstrous nature and so seems to add weight to the argument that this carving at least, is a warning against the sin of lust. It’s interesting to compare this figure to the Haddon Hall figure which seems to be equally unequivocally apotropaic in nature. These two figures show clearly that one theory does not explain all the figures.

Whittlesford Church. The figures can be seen just under the clock
Whittlesford Church. The figures can be seen just under the clock

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Twywell

The Twywell Sheela Na gig
The Twywell Sheela Na gig

The Figure

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.

Other sculpture
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.


http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/site/1321/ The Romanesque sculpture at Twywell on www.crsbi.ac.uk

1. Corpus of Romanesque sculpture in British and Ireland. http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/site/1321/
2. G. Zarnecki, The Early Sculpture of Ely Cathedral. London 1958, 22, 45, pl.18. from CRSBI Site above

SheelaTwywell05
Mouth Puller Twywell
Church Door
Church Door
Head Above Door
Head Above Door

Close up of the kings head. Prof. George Zarnecki makes a comparison between this head and the head on the Priors Door at Ely Cathedral 45 miles to the East.

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Southwell

The Southwell Minster Sheela Na Gig
The Southwell Minster Sheela Na Gig. Image has been adjusted to show the detail

The Figure

This figure lies on the right hand tower of Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire and was discovered by Norwegian Art Historian Kjartan Hauglid.

The minster goes back to the Saxon period and is believed to have been founded in 687 by Paulinus the first archbishop of York.
King Eadwing gifted land at Southwell to the church in 956 and it is on this land that the minister was built.
Construction of the minster started in 1108 replacing the earlier Saxon church from which a tesselated floor and a tympanum still exist.
The building was completed in 1150 which would seem to place the carving of the sheela na gig some time in the first half of the 12th century.
The carving itself is of a doward facing figure with hunched shoulders with both hands reaching below the legs to pull open an exaggerated
vulva (see above). Like a number of other figures e.g Stoke Sub Hamdon the exhibitionist nature of the carving can only really be seen from below
the figure. People viewing from further away simply see a hunched over figure in almost an Atlas like pose. This begs the question of the nature of
the figure if the exhibitionism cannot be seen easily then it would seem to argue against a didactic explanation of the figure and may
possibly lend weight to the argument that it is there as an apotropaic symbol warding off evil.

My thanks go to Kjartan Hauglid for permission to use these excellent photographs of the Southwell sheela na gig

The sculpture as  looks in reality
The sculpture as looks in reality
The location of the figure
The location of the figure
The sheela na gig can be seen second from the right. This photograph clearly shows the Romanesque context of the sheela na gig with a number of other romanesque motifs such as the bridled animal head and the double human heads.
The sheela na gig can be seen second from the right. This photograph clearly shows the Romanesque context of the sheela na gig with a
number of other romanesque motifs such as the bridled animal head and the double human heads.

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Northampton

Male Drinker exhibitionist corbel. The testicles and penis with flattened head are clearly visible. This style of execution of the penis can be seen on other Romanesque churches notable examples being in Spain. A small photo of a figure with a similar penis can be found here about half way down the page.
Male Drinker exhibitionist corbel. The testicles and penis with flattened head are clearly visible. This style of execution of the penis can be seen on other Romanesque churches notable examples being in Spain. A small photo of a figure with a similar penis can be found here about half way down the page.

The Church

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.

 

The Figures

Pair of male musicians (corbel). This corbel seems to be a pair of musicians one playing the fiddle or similar instrument while the other worn figure appears to be playing a pipe. A penis and testicles are clearly visible on the left hand figure while the right hand figure also seems to have a more worn set as well.
Pair of male musicians (corbel). This corbel seems to be a pair of musicians one playing the fiddle or similar instrument while the other worn figure appears to be playing a pipe. A penis and testicles are clearly visible on the left hand figure while the right hand figure also seems to have a more worn set as well.
Scaled foot eating monster (corbel).
Scaled foot eating monster (corbel).
Ambiguous possibly female exhibitionist corbel
Ambiguous possibly female exhibitionist corbel
Splay legged pair. Now worn or defaced this corbel seems a likely candidate for having once been exhibitionist.
Splay legged pair. Now worn or defaced this corbel seems a likely candidate for having once been exhibitionist.
Head holding pair. Both figures seem to have carving in the groin area but it is difficult to say now what they originally represented. Both figures seem to be male but this is questionable. Note that the head on the right hand figure is larger than that on the left. This hand to head gesture is also seen on the Kirknewton figures in Scotland.
Head holding pair. Both figures seem to have carving in the groin area but it is difficult to say now what they originally represented. Both figures seem to be male but this is questionable. Note that the head on the right hand figure is larger than that on the left. This hand to head gesture is also seen on the Kirknewton figures in Scotland.

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Moulton

The Mouton Pair
The Mouton Pair

The Figures

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.

If you have any information please contact me.

The Moulton Male Figure
The Moulton Female Figure
The Moulton Male Figure
The Moulton Male Figure

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