This somewhat odd figure is in private possession in the village of Donyatt Somerset and is not on view to the general public. It is thought to come from the remains of a late Norman chapel and manor that once graced the village 1. All in all this is a very strange figure. Firstly it appears to be a corner ornament which has had the left hand side squared off. The head has either also been squared off or as seems more likely was originally flat. This seems to be the case as the hair on the side of head terminates abruptly but there also seems to be the remnants of a flat “brim”. This would seem to indicate that either the carving was wearing a brimmed hat or something was on the head. It may be that the carving was meant to support a pillar in much the same way as the head below from nearby Stoke Sub Hamdon There also appears to be a “horn” protruding from the hair. The face is damaged with no discernable features and the head is joined to the body by a thick neck. A broad belt or band covers the barrel like body. The figure if it was a meant to be inset in a corner, would seem to represent a spread eagled body (see reconstruction below). There is also band between the legs of the carving on which is carved a small neat vulva. The vulva is carved partially on the aforementioned band but is also deeply reset into what appears to be damage in the groin area. It’s very hard to say whether the vulva was carved before or after this damage but due to it being part of the band running between the legs it may be an original piece of carving especially as its stands proud from the surrounding stone. Saying that my initial impression was that the vulva had been re-sculpted at some point mainly due to the sharpness of the carving. There is further evidence in that the “band” seems to have been cut in further to make the lips of the vulva stand proud. You can see that where the stomach terminates there is dip where the “band” used to be.
Thanks go to John Gower for informing us of the figure and to the owners of the figure for allowing it to be shown on the website.
The Chapel and Manor at Donyatt
The substance of the wall where the sheela is located is made up from rubble of the previous Manor building 2. A manorial chapel of the Montacute family is mentioned in 1255 as separate foundation from the parish church while the first mention of the manor itself occurs in 1328. The manor however has been rebuilt a number of times, with the last stage being Elizabethan. The building where the sheela resides is thought to incorporate stones from this building. The figure could have originated from any period of rebuilding but from the style of carving and its nature it is not unreasonable to surmise that it originated from the first incarnation of the chapel. It is worth pointing out however that carving is in a very good condition so has not be exposed to the elements for any long period. Mick Aston and Teresa Hall3 ascribe this figure to an unknown romanesque period of building at the local church, however taking into account the now defunct manorial chapel this seems a more likely source for the carving. A later date for the figure cannot be discounted however. There is another late exhibitionist figure at Stoke Sub Hamdon some 10 miles to the east4. Stoke Sub Hamdon has another earlier romanesque figure which is also an exhibitionist, if a fairly modest one. This would seem to indicate that there was a continuing tradition of carving exhibitionist figures in the area during the medieval period.
All in all a very unusual carving
The head at Stoke Sub Hamdon acting as the base of a pillar on the front door. If the sculpture above performed the same function as this head, then it would explain the flat top of the sculpture. Note the continuation of the stone at the side of the head this may go some way to explaining the “horn” on the side of the head. It’s also worth noting the “corner” nature of the carving.
1. Brian Harper Resident of Donyatt and builder of the wall on which the sheela resides
2. The Story of Donyatt and the Millenium Celebrations, Donyatt 2000 Committee
3. Somerset Archaeology 2003, Mick Aston and Teresa Hall
4. Two Sheila-na-gigs at Stoke Sub Hamdon, Paul Ashdown, Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 1993
Please bear in mind that this figure is not on public display