Thanks go to Mr George Wingfield for informing the project of this figure. Brent Knoll church in Somerset dates back to 11th century but the tower on which this carving resides dates from the 14th. The figure is most likely contemporary with this phase of building. The figure depicts a monster in an “acrobatic” pose with its feet held to its ears. A smaller monster head pokes out from its mouth and appears to be indulging in self fellatio with the shaft of the penis clearly entering its mouth. Definitely an unusual figure which predates the Alien movies by centuries but has a distinct similarity to the Xenopmorph’s projecting jaws.
The church also has a series of satirical bench end carvings depicting clergy as foxes.
The figure consists of a human somewhat grim looking head with a pill box style hat or hair, a pair of splayed legs with what appear to be three lobes in the crotch.A cat’s/beast head peeks out from between the legs with what could be cloven feet or paws beneath. Usually this figure is photographed directly from the front and the decoration on either side of the head has been described as an elaborate hair style. As you can see from the photos below the “hair” is in fact another two heads, skull on the left and what appears to be a less stern looking woman complete with clothed breasts on the right. The female has a similar style pill box hairdo/hat. The carved lines on both hats may indicate that they are meant to be crowns.
This figure has been referred to as a “sheela na gig” but as you can see from the photos is not obviously female or male for that matter. The three lobes could be an indication of a penis and testicles but if they are the execution is very modest. There is not anything that could safely be described as a vulva. Nevertheless the imagery in the carving in complex and obviously symbolic, though with male, female, death,beast and possible royal imagery it’s a little hard to interpret it’s exact meaning. Thanks go to Clare Heron for the use of her detailed photographs of the figure.
The figure is one of a number of carvings which adorn the lower part of the tomb of Prior of the Abbey from 1480 to 1491, Rowland Leschman.
The left hand side showing a skull with clasped hands
The right hand head appears to be a less stern looking female.
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.
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.
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.
Picture copyright Tim Prevett used with permission
This figure was found in a pile of loose sculpture fragments in the church by Akiko Kuroda on a Northern Earth Walk
The find was subsequently published in Northern Earth magazine.
The figure is of a monster eating someone with only the legs and buttocks protruding from the mouth. The monsters head is recognisably Romanesque with striations on the face that can be seen at many other sites (Kilpeck and Romsey are good pair of examples). The motif of someone being eaten by a monstrous head is reasonably common in religious Romanesque sculpture (Devizes has a similar monstrous figure with legs protruding from the mouth). This figure with the additional exhibitionist motif is to my knowledge unique. A pair arms holds open what appears to be the labia between the legs of the figure. It is difficult to see in the photo whether the arms belong to the monster or the person being eaten. The motif of a person being eaten is very much a symbol of sin and damnation. A number of Romanesque manuscripts and sculptures show the damned within the jaws of a huge monster. The theory that sheela na gigs are warnings against lust was put forward in Images of Lust by Anthony Weir and James Jerman and has been argued against by some people. Here however we have a example which unequivocally places both exhibitionism and damnation within the same context. The figure as now been set into the wall inside the church for safekeeping.
The church was dedicated to St Peter in 892 St Oswald Archbishop of York. The church has a number of Romanesque features including an arch and other architectural fragments built into the walls along with other newer features.
The church also holds one of the oldest gravestone in the country bearing the date of 1518
Video of the figure Copyright Charles Wildgoose used with permission
This figure lies in the churchyard of All Saints church in Braunston, Rutland and is commonly referred to as “The Goddess”. The church website1 refers to the carving as a “Shelagh”. The stone on which the carving resides was used as a doorstep until the 1920’s when it was uprooted and the carving found on the underside. (for another carving found face down see Llandrindod Wells) The church has been much altered over the years but still retains a romanesque doorway
The figure consists of head with two eyes with a pronounced eyebrow ridge. The only remaining eye has a drilled pupil and it would seem reasonable to assume the other also did. There is considerable damage to the left side of the head but the remnants of the other eye remain and more unusually a second “nose” is also present. Below the eyes is a large open mouth with what appears to be a tongue. Deeply carved striations appear on both sides of sides of the figure with an almost “concertina” effect. Underneath these striations appear to be fairly pert breasts, however the right one is damaged is damaged. Whereas the figure is quite unusual it would not look out-of-place with other sculpture from the medieval period. The striations, large rubbery mouth and drilled eyes can all be found on other pieces of sculpture. While the nature of the carving is very much different the striations and rubbery mouth with tongue can be found on a corbel at Kilpeck. Striations are also a fairly common feature in later monstrous church sculpture. The double nose is somewhat more unusual though. According to the book Public Sculpture of Leicestershire by Terry Cavanagh the damage to the left nipple happened in 1999.
Is this a sheela na gig?
Due to the lack of genitalia though we would have to discount this as a sheela na gig. Saying that it does appear to be medieval in style IMHO. There is a tradition of the figure being refered to as a sheela though. It is also mentioned in the Victoria County History for Rutland.
1 http://www.acny.org.uk/venue.php?V=10834 Accessed 18 November 2007
All photographs courtesy Robert Miller, copyright Robert Miller
This is an artist’s impression of what the carving may have looked like originally. The remnants of the left eye and double nose can still be seen on the original figure.