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 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.
This figure is located in the ruined church at Kildonan on the Isle of Eigg (pronounced Egg) in Scotland. The church is named after St Donan a contemporary of St Columba. St Donan was martyred in his monastery on Eigg either by Viking raiders or the local queen in 617 or 618. His death was either by beheading or fire depening on which account you read. The church which currently houses the alleged sheela sculpture is thought to be a 16th century construction but there is evidence of earlier religious settlement in four cross slabs which date from the early medieval period. Records also list a religous settlement here in 725 so it would seem that the monastery continued after St Donan’s death.
Is this a sheela na gig?
According to the plaque on the wall of the ruined church it is a sheela and also according to the book “Eigg The Story of an Island” by Camille Dressler (Polygon, Edinburgh 1998) where Ms Dressler titles it a “Carving of the sheela na gig, an aspect of the Celtic mother goddess”. Unfortunately as you can see on the exceptionally clear photograph by Sarah Price on the right, there is little evidence of a vulva on display. In fact the sculpture seems more to be “hands in lap” than exhibitionist. The raised area either side of the head seems to suggest wings or possibly a pillow. In fact if you take the head on its own then the figure becomes more like the winged angels heads you see on 18th century tombstones. The overall shape of the sculpture is also suggestive of a tombstone. The lower part of the slab is damaged and while there is a depression it is distinctly un-vulva like and seems to be more case of damage due to weathering. In its favour the site of the church seems to have been in use throughout the period when most sheelas were carved and there are also the figures on Rodel and Iona which also would lend weight to this figure possibly being a sheela. However like this figure on Eigg neither of these figures is unequivocally a sheela na gig. So taking into account all the evidence it would seem the definition contains a fair amount of wishful thinking.
Thanks go to Sarah Price for the photograph and the information on the plaque.
The small town of Cleobury (Pronounced Clibbery) Mortimer lies in Shropshire. Set in the retaining wall of the churchyard of St Mary’s there is very worn carving of what appears to be a seated figure with bent arms. As you can see from the photograph below the figure faces directly onto the main road through Cleobury. This figure has been defined as a Sheela Na Gig by the Courtauld Institute of Art . There is a record of the figure on the internet here on the institute’s “Public Monuments and Sculpture” pages. After speaking to Dr. M.W.Baldwin of Cleobury’s history society he informed me that the definition of the carving as a sheela na gig was a tentative one. After having seen the figure it is very hard to say what it originally represented as it is too worn to be able to identify any features. There does appear to be a cleft at the bottom of the carving, but it’s hard to distinguish any legs. There also appear to be two pillars either side of the figure. The pillars may be legs which would make the figure splay legged or equally they could be part of something the figure is seated on. Dr Baldwin also mentioned that the figure is fairly near Church Stretton which would make the figure part of the Shropshire sheela na gig cluster. The church is of the right age being from the late Norman period according to some information in the church. There is also a font or tub set into the wall of the porch which was found in a local garden. The church is also famous for it’s twisted spire.
The position of the arms seems to count against this figure being a sheela as they appear to b holding something over the abdomen/chest. This may indicate that the figure is very worn representation of Christ holding a bible. These Christ figures tend to be seated as well. All in all this figure is really too worn to make a hard and fast judgement as to whether it is a sheela na gig or not although some of the features suggest otherwise.
This figure was found by Keith Jones while visiting the church looking for green men. It was at first thought to be a decayed exhibitionist figure but on further inspection has turned out to be somewhat harder to interpret. The figure is very worn and consists of what appears to be a decayed face surmounting a deep cavity at the base of the figure. The right and left hand sides of the figure are hard to interpret due to weathering but there seems to more carving on the left hand side of the figure making it asymmetrical. The left side of the figure could be body with a sideways facing head similar to another corbel (see below) this is of course open to interpretation. Despite the figure being weathered it appears to be well integrated with the rest of the corbels and not an older figure kept from a previous building.
The church has a number of finely carved corbels representing dragons, monk like figures, bearded heads and flowers. There is also a corbel representing a branch which is echoed on the window surround below it
The style of the church is late perpendicular putting it in the late 1400’s. This and the style of the carvings which seems to be later than the early Norman period from which Sheelas are thought to originate puts some doubt on this figure originally being a sheela. Again the figure is too decayed to be certain.
Ancaster is situated in SW Lincolnshire , on the Roman Road of Ermine Street . In Roman times, there was a walled town, with earthen defences. Much Roman material has been excavated, including a statue of the Three Mother Goddesses, a statue of Minerva, and two stones dedicated to Viridius. There was a Roman cemetery with entrance archway, and inhumation burials have been discovered: some of C4 may be Christian. There are Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon remains in the area also.
The church is located to the west of Ermine Street , just north of the cross-roads, and was in the SW corner of the ancient Roman settlement. It is dedicated to St. Martin , which appears to be a relatively common dedication of churches using a pre-Christian sacred sire, as St Martin was noted for his destruction of pre-Christian temples.
The earliest existing architecture is Norman : arches in the nave, remnants in the chancel (with possible evidence of an earlier Saxon window), and an attractive font with intersecting arcading. Most of the church is Early English (C13?) with a C 14 tower. The interior has an interesting range of corbels, including several musicians, a boozy nun, and a great Green Man.
All of the exhibitionist figures occur on the tower and are integral to the structure of it and thus are likely to be C14. Pevsner gives the location of the sheela as “on the west face of the tower”. It is actually tucked into the angle of the SW buttress and is echoed by a non-sexual figure on the other face of the same buttress. The figure is low down, well within reach, and shows signs of damage around the vulva. It is considerably eroded, and probably would not arouse interest unless one was familiar with the customary pose of the sheela motif. The figure is carved into a recessed rectangular block of stone (the local Ancaster limestone is good building stone, but perhaps not fine enough in texture for detailed work, and erodes quite badly). Only the head, arms and torso are shown clearly, the figure leaning out a little from the recess, and the hands holding open what must have been the thighs. The face is extremely eroded: there is a suggestion of hair, but no clear features. The vulva is relatively large.
High on the same face of the tower, leaning outwards like many of the grotesques and gargoyles on this church, is a grinning male figure. He is bearded, and holds a large erect penis in his left hand. The carving is quite clear, and in some detail, even the opening in the head of the penis is shown. Also on the west face of the tower, is a carving of a couple, whether male, female or both, it is difficult to say. They are clasping hands: the right hand of the right figure, and the left of the left-hand figure, are held together between them. The right-hand person’s arm is hooked around the partner’s head, the fingers clothing the cheek, towards the mouth. It is not easy to see the other arm, the left-hand arm of the right figure, but it does appear to descend between them, the hand located in the genital area: perhaps a visit in the evening with a lower westerly sun would reveal more detail.
This carving gets a passing mention in the book Ghosts and Legends of the Peak District being listed as one of the sheelas in Derbyshire. It is situated on the old chapel in the village of Alderwasley near Wirksworth. The chapel is a small building next to a church yard and is now being used as the village hall after a number of years lying derelict. The chapel is small, distinctly un-church like and dates from 16th century. It used to be the personal chapel of the Hurt family whose old alabaster coat of arms can still been on the front of the building where it hangs above the main door. The building is supposed to be haunted and some of the carvings on the building are quite eerie. (see the head carving below). David Clarke in his book Ghosts and Legends of the Peak District states that the carvings on the chapel are taken from an older building which used be at the site. However I can find no mention of a church or chapel on site the before this one (if anyone knows differently please get in touch). There is some evidence to suggest that the materials used to build the chapel have been robbed from another larger building. The stone on which the alleged sheela resides is very large for a building of this size with an even larger stone directly below it. It seems unlikely that the stones were cut to such a large size for a building as small as this chapel. There is a cemetery to the left of the chapel.
The chapel itself is mostly made up of a red sandstone with inserts of a much lighter grey stone There are a number of carved items set in a line into the front wall These are :
A malevolent looking stone head,
A decorated shield,
A foliate pattern
a plain protruding stone
Flanking the main door there are two worn heads both of which appear to be wearing hats
All of these items seem to be carved from a darker stone than the stone which the chapel is made of.
The main door to the chapel is surmounted by a decorated lintel which appears to be 16th century.
Is this a sheela na gig?
The carving is very weathered and and it is hard to determine whether it is a sheela or not. There is a cleft at the bottom of the carving and there seem to be hunched up knees and folded arms. The face is very weathered but you can still make out eyes and a mouth. The mouth seems similar to the Holdgate Sheela in that the lips are joined but again this is hard to know for certain due to the weathering. The date of the chapel would count against this being a sheela as it is far later than the usual Romanesque period. However if the stones of the chapel are taken from an earlier building then we may be able to discount this. Saying that I have yet to find any records of a Norman church or chapel at this site. The position of the figure on a quoin stone is similar to figures found in Ireland but is fairly unusual for a British sheela. The alleged sheela figure is by far and away the most worn of the carvings on chapel but this may be down to the faster weathering of the sandstone from which it is carved. It is worth noting that the only other sandstone carving on the chapel appears to be 16th century and is also worn although not to the same extent as the alleged sheela. All in all the figure is too weathered to be certain whether it is a classic sheela na gig or other type of exhibitionist figure.
In her recently published book Sheela-na-gigs Unravelling an Enigma Barbara Freitag gave details of a Sheela na Gig at Haverfordwest Priory in the county of Dyfed.
The Haverfordwest figure is placed in between two column capitals originating from the priory at Haverfordwest which is thought to have been founded in the early 13thC (1203) by Augustinian cannons. The annual income at the time of the Dissolution was assessed at £133 indicating a moderate wealth by the standards of Welsh monastic houses. Records and the state of ruins suggest the priory escaped the worst
damage due to fire, or war. The ruins were substantially robbed of their decorative stonework over the years, but fortunately, this figure was found during excavations of the site in 1994.
What remains of the capital is in a very good state of preservation, this may indicate that it was an indoor figure. It is thought the capital would have been part of the cloisters.
The figure which measures 84mm x 60mm is an inverted acrobat type. The genital area is damaged so its anyone’s guess as to whether it was exhibitionist once. As you can see from the photograph there is a very faint raised area on the groin which may indicate a vulva. There may also be a pointer to this figure being an exhibitionist due to the surround of the figure. At first, I thought it was vegetation surrounding the figure but Dr Rees mentioned that she thought it was a dress. On closer inspection, the vegetation bore a distinct impression of folds rather than vines or leaves. This is further borne out by the fact that there is a “bar” just below the breasts, which could indicate a fold of dress material.
This figure is now in the possession of CADW. Thanks go to Dr Sian Rees and Dr Richard Avent of CADW for allowing us to photograph this and the Raglan castle figure.
A Warning Against Lust?
Since this figure was located in the cloisters it would seem that this carving was meant for an ecclesiastic audience. Since we know with some certainty that sculpture was used as an educational tool could this figure have been used as reminder to the monks not to indulge in the sin of lust? It’s position on a cloister column does not seem to suggest an apotropaic function.
Please note this map indicates the original location of the figure only.
At the time of writing the figure is in the possession of CADW and is not only public display.
This figure can be found in at the Church of St Andrews in Clevedon, North Somerset. The church is thought to date from the 12th century but has been added to over the years. There is some doubt over the date of the foundation with several dates possible from 1090-1170. The masonry however is late Norman. The tower was originally short and quite stubby and was raised to its present height in the 17th century. There is a rich corbel table surrounding the tower (see below) with each corbel being carved. However the carvings are now so worn as be almost indistinguishable from the ground. The variation in carving can be seen from the different outlines of the corbels. Despite the number of carvings on the church nothing has been published on them 1. The majority of the carvings are heads which can be found in double, treble and janiform styles. One corbel is very abstract and it’s very hard to tell what it is meant to represent.
The alleged sheela figure can be found on the right hand side of the church as you walk in through the main gate. It is one of a number of corbels (see below for examples) which are just above head height under the eaves of the church roof. The figure hold a foot in each hand in an acrobatic position which is very similar to a figure in Lower Swell. There are no immediate genitals visible but there is a small cleft in the middle of the groin and there also appears to be the remains of a large cigar shaped area of stone immediately in between the legs. This could indicate that the carving has been defaced at some time. If this was originally a vulva then it would be similar in relative size to the Oaksey Sheela however it could equally be a mega-phallic male. Unfortunately it is now too worn to be sure either way.
Is this a sheela na gig?
The truth of the matter is it’s impossible to tell. Romanesque sculpture includes both splay legged exhibitionist figures and non exhibitionist splay legged figures. For example the figure at Rock church in Worcestershire is splay legged and impaled on something. While the it is suggestive it is not overtly exhibitionist. A number of the
capitals in Anselms Crypt in Canterbury Cathedral are also non exhibitionist splay legged figures. Unfortunately this figure will have to be filed under “maybe”.
I finally managed to visit Binstead with my wife in June 2008.
The visit was very informative as we photographed other pieces of sculpture in the church which firmly put the sheela and animal head figure in a Romanesque context.
The church was thought to have served the workmen in the nearby quarry and from Herringbone work in the walls is thought to date from the mid 12th century around 1150.
Nearby lies Quarr Abbey, a Cistercian house dedicated to the Virgin Mary which was founded in 1131, by Baldwin de Redvers, finally being consecrated 1 June 1150.”
Due to the low status of the church and the nearness of the higher status building it would seem likely that sculpture was more likely to originally have been part of the fabric of the abbey. Only a few ruins remain of the original abbey which was dissolved in the 1500s. The present abbey building dates from 1908. As we have seen in other churches,sculpture is frequently re-used. It would seem likely that the the romanesque fragments were rescued from the abbey ruins and re-used at some point in Binstead church rather than being part of the original Romanesque incarnation.
The head on which the figure sits is definitely an animal head grasping its snout with its paws. This is a common romanesque motif and can be seen on many other churches (e.g. Penmon on Anglesey in Wales). This along with the other fragments in the church appear to be Romanesque in style. The sheela figure appears also appears to be Romanesque in style although it is very weathered. Unlike the animal headbelow it is not a corbel being carved in the round. (Compare to the Holdgate sheela na gig in Shropshire).
There are number of carved corbels inside the church along with a grotesque hunched figure on the end of the church abovethe romanesque fragments. These are thought to be Victorian although some of the interior corbels have been carved in a Romanesque style. Two of the interior corbels, which are crudely carved, appear to be pipe player which may also be an angel, while the other appears to be drummer although both are hard to make out.
“The Idol” an older name
It’s worth noting that the name “The Idol” is the oldest recorded name for a sheela predating John O’Donovan’s “sheela ny gigg” by 59 years. It is mentioned in 1781 in “The History of the Isle of Wight” by R. Worsley and mentioned again in 1795 by J.Albin in “A New, Correct and Much-improved History of the Isle of Wight” (Andersen). “The Idol” name was also applied to the sheela in Lusk, County Dublin in Ireland.
The following information is from visits made by Keith Jones and Paul Sivell a local resident.
Notes from Keith Jones
A rather badly weathered sheela which is situated at the apex of an arch gate which leads into the grounds of the church. The figure appears to be seated, with her arms resting above her genitals, with a circle vaginal cavity below. She appears to be sitting on some structure with her legs bent at the knees, and widely splayed. Her face is now very badly worn, but is bald, and her large ears are still to seen. Formerly it is though that it had been placed on the church.
The figure was first mentioned in “The History of the Isle of Wight” by R. Worsley published in 1781;
‘The church is a small plain building having nothing remarkable about it, but a rude and very ancient piece of sculpture over the key-stone of the north door, representing a human figure, sitting with the feet on a kind of pedestal, resembling a man’s head; the whole is about two feet and a half high; it is vulgarly called the Idol,’ (N.B. Local tradition refers to the figure as the ‘Saxon Idol’ 1)
Another writer suggested:
‘The squatting figure is seated on, and supported by an animal head, the mouth of which can be seen from below, and with paw like projections on either side of the head.’
In light of the negative attitudes towards Sheelas, it is refreshing to consider John Albin’s note in his History of the Isle of Wight published in 1795:
‘A report is related, that this figure was removed some years ago, when the church was undergoing some repairs, but that it was restored to its ancient situation on its being productive of displeasure to the inhabitants.’
Of the old church, only the chancel now remains, and the traces of herringbone stone work, suggests an early Norman, or Romanesque date. In 1844 the old nave and associated structured which were contemporary with the chancel were rebuilt. The church notes state the Sheela was originally located above the north door of the nave. The church notes claim:
‘Studies by G. E. and A. L. Hutchinson of the Isle or Wight Natural and Archaeological Society confirmed the figure as a Sheela na gig associated with pagan properties of protection, and possibly fertility’.
During my visit, I found the figure on an ornamental gate a little south east of the church. The figure which measures 36cm high, 33cm wide, sits on an animal’s head which is 31cm. High, and is 3.4m off the floor.
Although the Sheela is weathered, and covered in part by white lichen, it is still possible to make out quite a lot of detail. Her head is bald, and seems proportionally larger then her body. She has very large ears, much like the Scregg Castle Sile. Both arms come to rest in rather flat hands each side of a clear vaginal cavity. The figure has very broad hips, which contrast with rather spindly legs which suggests this is a seated figure. I would agree with the suggestion that she sits on an animals head. The animal seems to wear a muzzle, and appears to be a bear.
Notes from Paul Sivell
‘You will see that there has been some modern re-pointing and there dollops of cement mortar under each of the sheela’s feet. I don’t know if you agree but the feet appear to to curve in and it looks as though both hands & feet are being used to to pull open the vulva. I am undecided about the stone beneath. The sheela is sited above the archway to the east of the main entrance to the church. It is about 4 m up and approx 0.5m in height (excluding the base stone). It is made from Binstead/Quarr limestone. This was quarried extensively in the immediate vicinity of the site, quarrying apparently began around 300 A.D. although it was most famed during the medieval period. Winchester Cathedral, Romsey Abbey & the upper portion of the tower of London were all made from
Binstead Limestone. The sheela has always been known locally as the “Saxon Idol”. I was first shown it and told this as a child by my father in the mid 1950’s.