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.
This figure was discovered by Theresa Oakley and was published in her doctoral thesis Lifting the Veil.
The figure is very worn and as such it is hard to tell what it was originally meant to represent.
The question is was this once an exhibitionist figure? There are a number of features that count against this. The land for the building was granted to the Austin friars in 1379 which puts the carving in a much later period than the 12th century when we normally see female exhibitionist sculpture.
It resides on the now disused Chapel of the Augustinian Friary on Conduit Hil, Ry and is in a somewhat dilapidated state. Permission was granted to the friars to rebuild their friary after a French raid destroyed the original buildings along with most of the town. The chapel is the only building to have survived into the present day. It has had a varied life serving as a store house in the 1700s. In the twentieth century it wet through many incarnations including Salvation Army barracks, theatre, malthouse, butter and cheese warehouse, wool store pottery and dance hall.
While I was visiting the figure one of the locals very kindly let me into his garden to have a look at the side of the building and photograph the odd blocked up floor level windows.
Is this a Sheela Na Gig?
If this is an exhibitionist figure then it would be exceptional given the likely date of carving. It is worn and it is hard to tell what originally it once was. Angel figures from this period when they become worn start to become suggestive of exhibitionist figures. Having said that carving as it stands today is suggestive of one. At the end of the day this carving is simply to worn to make an accurate judgement.
‘A figure preserved in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral was noted in 1894’.
Glasgow Cathedral has a history going back over 1600 years, when the site was first blessed for burials by St Ninian around 397 AD. Later in the 6th century, Kentigern popularly known as Mungo was selected as bishop by the King, and the people. St Mungo was born on the shore of Fife near Culross. He trained for the priesthood at Culross by St Serf. Later St Mungo founded a monastic community, in Glasgow, and built a cathedral. St Mungo died in 603AD. St Mungo’s Cathedral was destroyed or severely damaged by fire, and the older building was rebuilt, and dedicated in 1136. The Lower Church, which houses the figure, was created during the 12th century by Bishop William de Bondington (1233 – 1258). Further developments to this part of the Cathedral occurred during the 13th and 15th century, when the Blacader aisle of the Lower Church was added by Archbishop Blacadere (1483 – 1508).
The figure is located in the crypt, or Lower Church. In the far left-hand (northeast) corner of the Lower Church, is the doorway to St Nicholas Chapel. The figure is located on the bottom left of the frieze, which surrounds the doorway. The arch of the doorway is richly carved and for some reason very worn despite it being in the crypt. This wear is at odds with most of the other carving in the crypt which could mean that the door was originally an external one.
The Glasgow figure is very odd indeed, and difficult to say what it originally represents. The large triangular shaped head with a central groove sits on Herculean shoulders. Two powerful arms come to rest on the lower abdominal area, and the broad ill-defined legs are held in an open manner. The figure has a central ridge on the torso, running up from the pelvic area to the chest and two lower ridges either side.
Speculatively, the two lower ridges could represent, the vulva, while the large central ridge, a penis. To conclude could this figure represent a Sheela na Gig, a male phallic figure, a penis sucking hermaphrodite, or even a very worn minstrel figure playing some type of pipes?
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.
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.
According to The Witch on the Wall the figure was discovered near the remains of St Ives Priory the figure is crudely carved for the most and appears to have signs on burning on it. The photograph to the right was taken in the 1970’s by Anthony Weir author of Images of Lust . At that time the figure was in the private possession of Mr R.C. Jude of St Ives. I contacted the Norris museum near St.Ives with a view to finding out what had happened to the figure and whether the museum now had possession. Unfortunately according to the museum Mr. Jude had since died and had no immediate family. It’s assumed that the figure was left to his cousins or more remote family. Unfortunately this now means that the figure is essentially lost. If anyone knows the whereabouts of the figure or can put me touch with Mr. Jude’s family please let me know.
One of the odder features of this sculpture is that vulva resides in a depression. This could be down to the legs now being missing or possibly that the figure was being eaten by a monstrous pair of jaws,
Please note that this shows the Location of St Ives. This figure is now lost.
This figure is located on Rodel Church at the southern tip of the Isle of Harris in the Western Isles of Scotland. The current church is thought to originate from the early 1500’s but it is believed that it was built on the site of an older church of unknown date. The church is associated with the Augustinian nunnery at Iona which also houses an alleged sheela na gig.
The Rodel figure is carved on a roughly square block on the east side of the tower, surrounded by a weathered string course.It is in a seated position with both legs bent and wide apart. The left leg is slightly more extended than the right. The vulva is represented by a small but definite cleft between the legs. The right hand holds a now worn object which has been described as a baby but looks more like an animal such as a dog or lamb. Intriguingly the left hand points to, or is holding a raised rectangular section stone which has a worn and rough surface. The face of the figure is turned towards this object. This rectangle is deliberately carved but it’s function is not immediately apparent. It would appear that the face was originally fairly detailed and the head is covered in what appears to be styled hair. Even though the figure is worn the vulva is still apparent and the splay legged nature of carving would definitely seem to put this figure in the exhibitionist category. On the south side of the tower lies an almost modern jacketed male exhibitionist figure known as “The Lewd Man”. This figure appears to be holding his penis in both hands.
Mairi Kidd writes about the figure on the Flickr Sheela na gig group
“According to Lesley Riddoch’s Hebrides bike-tour programme, Countess Dunmore had her ghillie shoot off this poor wee mannie’s wee mannie. Luckily he missed his clachan! Tradition has it that he is known as Seumas a’ Bhuid, which would be James of the willy in English. Rhymes with ghillie; maybe there’s a limerick in there.
In her recently published book, Sheela-na-gigs Unravelling an Enigma Dr Barbara Freitag gave details of a Sheela na Gig located in Raglan Castle. Although exhibitionist figures are frequently located on secular buildings in Ireland (mostly castles), this is the forth known case on the British mainland. The other figures being Haddon Hall, Tickhill and the recently discovered figure at Donyatt in Somerset (although it’s thought that this figure originated from a chapel).
Raglan Castle, Monmouthshire is considered one of the county’s most magnificent late medieval castles. Constructed on the site of an 1100 motte and bailey castle with timber buildings, the present structure was commenced in 1432. Further additions were made up until 1549. The castle was abandoned on 17 August 1646 following the siege during the Civil War, and is now an atmospheric ruin. The castle is now maintained by CADW.
The Raglan figure, is a waterspout with a channel running down the back in pretty much the same manner as the Margam figure. It has pointed ears and is very worn. The figure has a potbelly, and below there is a shadow between the legs where you would expect to find a vulval cleft. The figure does gesture towards the groin is with the right hand. The right arm is for most part missing. What does remain seems to indicate that this hand is also gesturing towards the groin however the thigh on the left seems to join the body as you would expect so the left hand may have been further back than the right. You could take this as a pointer to the figure being exhibitionist i.e. pointing to the genitals.
The original location of this figure is not known, but a photograph dating from 1860 puts it at the foot of the Grand Stair in the Fountain Court part of the castle. This area of the castle dates from 1460 – 1469. Later it was found among other fragments in the castle grounds. The figure is currently being restored by CADW. Eventually the figure will be put back on display in Raglan Castle.
Richard Avent the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments concludes:
‘However, if a gargoyle, it is in a rather different style from the only other gargoyles at the castle which are at the top of the main Gatehouse and Closet Tower. All in all, the exact origins of this sheela are a bit of a puzzle but it must, presumably, be linked in some way to either the 15th century castle or perhaps something which preceded it on the same site.’
Is this a sheela na gig? Most female exhibitionist figures in the U.K. tend to originate in the 12th and early 13th centuries. By the 15thC figures had become more monstrous and male exhibitionist figures such as bottom showers are more common. Female exhibitionists are few and far between and those that do exist seem to be a lot more modest than their 12thC counterparts. (Another example is the Stoke Sub Hamdon 15thC exhibitionist figure.). There is a question mark over whether this figure was once exhibitionist at all. While it does have a faint suggestion of a vulva it lacks the overt and shocking exhibitionism of earlier figures such asKilpeck and Oaksey. It seems with 15thC figures we are moving towards a “nude” type representation rather than “sheela-na-gig” type exhibitionism. This taken in account with the height at which the figure was likely to reside would seem to indicate that later figures , if indeed they are connected to the earlier shocking “sheela-na-gig” motif they are becoming more modest in their execution.
Our thanks to Sian Rees and the late Richard Avent of CADW for allowing us to photograph this and the Haverfordwest figure and for allowing us to publish these figures on the website.
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