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 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.
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 roof boss in Sheffield Cathedral is often reported as a Sheela Na Gig.Due to is abstract nature and lack of genitals this would not seem to be the case. It could be a representation of an acrobat figure but again is very abstract. Local tradition holds that it is a representation of the river Don.
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.
Nunburnholme is a small village near Pocklington in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
The church of St James was founded by the family of Roger de Morely. The church holds a Norman arch with at least one other Norman fragment of a peg toothed face embedded in an outside wall. The face also includes a fragment of zig zag carving which would seem to suggest a Norman origin.
Thanks go to C.B. Newham of www.digiatlas.org for the use of the pictures and information about the carving. Pictures copright C.B. Newham
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.
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 Church of St Nicholas at North Grimston North Yorkshire (Also known as North Grimstone)
The Village of Grimston lies 4 miles SE. of Malton in North Yorkshire is recorded in the Domesday book as “Grimeston”. The village is also known for the iron age sword accidentally found there in 1902. The Church of St Nicholas, on which the figure resides, has a number features which date it back to the Norman period but the font is widely regarded to be Saxon which dates the building back even further.
The sheela is one of a number of Romanesque corbels some of which appear to be relocated voussoirs.The figure appears to be quite fat and unusually has a pair of pendulous breasts (see Oaksey for another example). There appears to be small cleft between the bent legs of the figure possibly indicating a vagina. The figure’s arms are held against the top of the chest. It’s quite modest in its exhibitionism, in some ways similar to the figure at Worth Matravers in Dorset. In fact a number of the figures bear a passing similarity to the carvings at Stoke Sub Hamdon and Studland far to the South. As well as the corbel table the church boasts a Romanesque chancel arch. This is another example of a figure which is not as unequivocally exhibitionist as say the Kilpeck or Oaksey sheelas yet still has sexual attributes (breasts in this case). It is interesting that this figure has a counterpart in masturbating male figure which seems to firmly put the carvings in the sexual sin category.
Pat O’Halloran’s site www.danu.co.uk has a number of photographs of the church, corbel table and its Saxon font. Thanks go to Pat for allowing the use of his images on this website.
Male figure at North Grimston
This figure while very worn can still just be recognised as a masturbating male figure with the remnants of a penis just visible. The motif can be seen at other Romanesque sites such as the Church of St John in Devizes and possibly at Tickhill Castle although the latter is very worn