All posts by Mike Stuart

The Intriguing Tale of Shocking Sheela Na Gig and Its Art References: By Candy Bedworth

Sheela Na Gig, Church of St Mary and St David, Kilpeck, England, UK. kilpeckchurch.org.uk.

Everyone remembers their first sighting of a Sheela Na Gig. Wandering around an old church, breathing in the architecture, the history, the silence. And then – that looks like, oh, yes, it is – a naked woman, exposing her genitals to your gaze. What is a Sheela Na Gig and how has it influenced modern art?

Hidden in plain sight, these wooden or stone sculptural figures can be found in churches across the UK and in central Europe. Let’s take a closer look at these fantastic creatures.

Sheela Na Gig, Radnorshire Museum, Llandrindod Wells, Wales, UK

No-one can definitively explain the exact purpose of the stone carvings. Sheela Na Gig is generally believed to be a pre-Christian deity or fertility symbol. She almost always has exaggerated genitalia. She is depicted with a fruitful womb, but with an older, crone head. Is this the Earth goddess who both births us, and then takes us in death?

The figures are often depicted in a birthing position. There are suggestions that they are a folklore talisman used for promoting a successful birth – a mascot of the midwife if you will. As remember, in the past many women would have died during childbirth.

Sheela Na Gig, St Clements, Hebrides, Scotland, UK, Wikimedia Commons

Still others suggest they are simply part of the Romanesque sculptural style of art. In which, gargoyles and other fantastical creatures were used in the decoration of both churches and secular buildings. They may have been comical in-jokes by stone-masons, or a magical protection used to scare away evil.

Sheela Na Gig, Rock, Worcester, England, UK, sheelanagig.org.

Of course, for many in the Church these are shameful and obscene images. Clerics claim they are a warning against the sin of female lust. Personally, I don’t buy this theory. I think that many people are disturbed and affronted by imagery of a joyful, powerful, explicitly sexual female, and their responses are driven by fear and misogyny. Angry congregations have campaigned to get rid of some carvings, as in Easthorpe, Essex, UK. Where a statue deemed ‘pornographic’ was hacked down and given to the local museum. Others have been similarly defaced. Literally thousands of wooden Sheela Na Gigs have been burnt. However, many communities celebrate and share their Sheelas.

Sheela Na Gig, Kilnaboy Church, Kilfenora, County Clare, Ireland, cilfenoraclare.com.

This kind of fruitful goddess image is, of course, an ancient portrayal that has been seen across the globe since pre-historic art was first practiced. See this article on ancient sculpture.

Remember the famous Woman of Willendorf. A couple of years ago, artist Nina Paley made some fun gifs using some of the world’s most famous female statues.

Woman of Willendorf, c. 28,000-25,000 BCE, Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

What is interesting about the Sheela Na Gig, is that it was so popular in churches around the time that the last vestiges of pagan Goddess worship were being eradicated across Europe. Are these the last defiant images, left as a reminder of the power of women? Power stolen by the misogynist politics of the Christian Church?

Sheela Na Gig, Castello Sforzesco, Museum of Ancient Art, Milan, Italy, Wikimedia Commons.

And as for the name? Again, debate rages. There is no true etymological meaning for the name, and it is highly unlikely they were called Sheela Na Gig by the original carvers. Apparently, St Patrick was married, and his wife’s name was Sheelah – is there a connection?  Many suspect that each had her own name, and that Sheela Na Gig is the name of one particular carving that was then used to describe all of the carvings. In Ireland, a variation of the word can be an ancient name for a hag or old woman. In Northern England, ‘gig’ was slang for a woman’s genitals. There are as many theories about the name as there are carvings, and in truth we will never know.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-79, Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA.

Today, these ancient and often damaged figures continue to inspire awe and debate. As feminist scholarship has reclaimed female sexuality and the power of the female figure, artists explore and re-imagine the female body. Take a look at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, shown above. Or listen to PJ Harvey who wrote a famous song about the Sheela Na Gig!

And last but not least, the Vagina Museum in London is well worth a visit.

Do you have a local Sheela Na Gig? Share your images! The Sheela Na Gig Project is keeping a photographic archive of all sightings.

Taken from an article by Candy Bedworth, published by Daily Art magazine:

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Dowsing Suggests… by Clive Essery

18th Century dowserDowsing is a method of finding many things, including water, which are not immediately visible above ground.
Having visited the site over five times, I have spent many days investigating the area, and given a talk to our local archaeology society about the Church, tempting them to visit the Church for themselves.

Dowsing suggests that there were two other Saxon period Christian altars north of the north wall. At that wall you can see a strange sloping buttress, unlike all of the others around the church and to its left is the markings of a door. Continue reading Dowsing Suggests… by Clive Essery

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Liber Landavensis: The Book of Llandaff

The Book of Llandaff was written between 1120 and 1140, under the supervision of Urban, who was appointed bishop of Llandaff by the king of England in 1107, and consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This book, Liber Landavensis, is one of Wales’s earliest ecclesiastical manuscripts.

Book of LlandaffIt is a manuscript of considerable bulk comprising 128 vellum pages. Inside its covers the early history of the diocese of Llandaff is chronicled and the contents also throw light on the state and position of the church in one area of Wales soon after the Norman Conquest.

Historians believe that it was written in the wake of a disagreement between Urban and the bishops of St David’s and Hereford regarding the boundaries of Llandaff diocese.
It was hoped that the contents of the book would strengthen the rights of that diocese to lands and properties in south east Wales. Continue reading Liber Landavensis: The Book of Llandaff

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A question often posed

A question often posed – how is that the church and its carvings on the church have survived so well?

kilpeck-castle2bBecause, for so many years, the area was almost unknown and therefore was probably poor, there were not the funds to alter it. The viability of the village depended to a large extent on the castle and its lords, and G R Lewis clearly found the church in a poor state in 1818. Four factors probably accounted for its demise: three years of terrible wet weather round Grosmont 1315,1316,1317 when 20% of the populace died, causing lack of seed corn and the slaughter of much livestock, and so here too, the passage of the ownership of the castle to absentee landlords, further Great Famine in 1335, and finally the Black Death in 1348/9. Had these events not taken place, it is more than likely that the church would have been radically changed, so we must be grateful, in a strange way, for these misfortunes. Continue reading A question often posed

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A history of the Pye family

pye-crestThe Pye family were once based in Much Dewchurch, where several are buried in the church. They were a large family of great renown, both in UK, Canada and USA, and many were MPs. They were extensive landowners.
I am much appreciative of help given by Betty Wing whose family has extensively researched the history of the whole Pye family from their origins in Finland and Norway. Research shows that most Pyes are descended from, or named from, the family started by Hugh fitz William, Fitz Norman de LaMare, who is mentioned in the Breton Charter dated 1030. The genealogy of Hugh is somewhat of a puzzle. It was after their Kilpeck days that the name Pye came about. Continue reading A history of the Pye family

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Here Lyeth the Bodye – A Selection of Epitaphs from the Churchyard at Kilpeck

churchyard2A study of the epitaphs on the gravestones in the church can reveal a good deal about the thoughts and life-styles of some ancestors.

There are some splendid stones here, the earliest dated 1696. Many of them are the work of son and father Parry who lived here in the early part of the nineteenth century. Joseph Parry, who died in 1846, lived at Marlas and Richard Parry, who died in 1876, lived at Grafton Oak; both are buried here.

There are few memorials inside the church; the large one immediately in front of the altar recalls the Sayce family – sayce/saise is a slightly derogatory name for an Englishman! Continue reading Here Lyeth the Bodye – A Selection of Epitaphs from the Churchyard at Kilpeck

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George Lewis’ illustrated book of Kilpeck church

Hereford, Dynedor and the Malvern Hills, from the Haywood Lodge, Harvest Scene, Afternoon 1815 by George Robert Lewis 1782-1871
Hereford, Dynedor Harvest Scene,  by George R Lewis

Some extracts from the book entitled Lewis’s Kilpeck Church published in 1842 by George Robert Lewis. He was an artist living in Herefordshire with, amongst others, a painting of ‘Harvesting in Dinedor’ which is part of the Tate Collection. He was a relative of the better known John Frederick Lewis, the orientialist painter and in late 1850s President of the Royal Academy.

This extraordinary book, published in 1842 by Lewis who had first visited the church in 1818, was paid for by public subscription by some 261 subscribers, many of them bishops. It was dedicated to Thomas Lord Bishop of Hereford. The first 18 pages of some 9000 words is entitled On Ecclesiastical Design and is very outspoken, with criticism, amongst other places of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Illustrations of Kilpeck Church by G R LewisThat is followed by another 38 pages of Explanation of the plates, (of which there are 28) which were drawn, probably on site, by Lewis. Many of them are faithfully drawn, but also reflect what clearly he thought ought to have been there. In particular views of the church from various angles are not true to life. A comparison with Lewis’ other images of the church is entertaining! Note ‘his’ cross at the west end where there actually was a belfry. The chancel appears to have neither door nor window!They are reproduced here.

This article reproduces some of his comments, and is only a small sample of his pronouncements; but they could be thought of as revealing how the carvings just might have been planned. The whole book is in the public domain.  Read on……………….. Continue reading George Lewis’ illustrated book of Kilpeck church

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