Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Kilpeck Sheela-na-Gig
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    The term “Sheela-na-Gig” refers to a corpus of 11th and 12th-century sculptures and stone carvings of a female figure in a squatting position, holding open her exaggerated genitalia. This sheela-na-gig appears on a corbel on the southwest exterior nave wall of the parish church of Saints Mary and David in Kilpeck, England, near the Welsh border. The Kilpeck sheela exhibits all of the defining characteristics that mark a sheela-na-gig, including a bald head, large eyes, and a gaunt torso without breasts. Of the 110 surviving examples, approximately 70 sheelas are found in Ireland and the remainder appear in England, Scotland, Wales, and France. The Kilpeck sheela also exemplifies the context of sheelas in England, where the figures appear most commonly in small country churches. In contrast, Irish sheelas appear most frequently on castles and other domestic spaces. The term sheela-na-gig first appears in 18th century records and may be a modification of the Irish phrase Sighle na gCíoch (“old hag of the breasts”) or Síle ina Giob (“Sheila on her haunches”).

    Scholars since the 19th century have proposed a variety of interpretations for the sheela-na-gig’s provocative pose and the emphasis on her open pudendum. One widely-accepted reading argues that the sheela-na-gig was first and foremost a protective device to ward off evil. Stories from Irish folklore describe young women exposing themselves to heroes to bestow luck, or to the devil in order to turn him away (Ford, 1998). The frequent presence of sheelas above doorways, on gates, or near other liminal spaces in Ireland further supports the notion of the figures’ apotropaic power. Another theory posits that the sheela-na-gig has her roots in Romanesque sculpture from France and Spain and that the motif arrived in the British Isles either through pilgrimage or conquest. Similar “exhibitionist” figures, both male and female, commonly appear in contemporary church architecture in continental Europe. In a Christian context, the sheela-na-gig could personify the sin of lust and serve as a warning to her viewers. Conversely, more recently, scholars such as Barbara Freitag, Juliette Dor, and Marian Bleeke have suggested a syncretic view of the sheela-na-gig. They propose that the popularity of only female exhibitionist figures in the British Isles points to the fusion of continental exhibitionist motifs with traditional insular fertility beliefs. In this case, the sheela’s enlarged vulva represented prosperity and fruitfulness rather than sin.
  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Architecture- Religious Fertility Lust (Personification) Nude Obscenity Protection Sexuality Sheela-Na-Gigs, Carved Figures of Naked Females That Emphasize the Genitals
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 12
  • Date: 1140-1143
  • Related Work: An excellent survey of the stone carving in the church of Saints Mary and David, including the corbel table: http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/search/location/kilpeck/site/ed-he-kilpe.html; The Sheela Na Gig project: http://www.sheelanagig.org/
  • Current Location: Kilpeck, Church of Saints Mary and David
  • Original Location: England, W., Kilpeck in Herefordshire
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Sculptures
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Stone
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 37.2/23/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Bleeke, Marian. "Sheelas, Sex, and Significance in Romanesque Sculpture: The Kilpeck Corbel Series." Studies in Iconography 26 (2005), pp. 1-26; Dor, Juliette. "The Sheela-Na-Gig: An Incongruous Sign of Sexual Purity?," in Medieval Virginities, ed. Anke Bernau, Ruth Evans and Sarah Salih. University of Wales Press, 2003. pp. 33-55; Ford, Patrick K. "The 'Which' on the Wall: Obscenity Exposed in Early Ireland," in Obscenity: Social Control and Artistic Creation in the European Middle Ages, ed. Jan M. Ziolkowski. Brill, 1998. pp. 176-90;Freitag, Barbara. Sheela-Na-Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma. Routledge, 2004. pp. 63-108; Hunt, John. "Kilpeck Chuch: A Window on Medieval “Mentalité”." Historian 92 (2006), pp. 30-33