Friday, 8 November 2019

Sheela na gig: Warning - Explicit Content! - Celia Rees

At the end of September I met my New Zealand friend, Ismay, in Bordeaux. With my husband as expert driver, we were about to embark on a long planned research trip, looking at Romanesque churches, searching for carvings of bicaudal mermaids and what are euphemistically known as exhibitionist figures.  

We were staying for a week in a gite adjacent to a chateau and surrounded by vineyards.  The chateau was a shell. During the war, it had served as temporary head quarters for the 2nd SS Panzer Division, Das Riech, infamous for their brutal massacre of the inhabitants of Oradour - sur - Glane.  During their time in the chateau, they had emptied the cellar and smashed every single item in a thousand piece collection of china. They had despoiled the place so thoroughly that the family did not return until 1989. 

We set out to explore the villages around, looking for Romanesque churches, on the hunt for bicaudal mermaids. I've written about bicaudals before on this blog, so I won't expand on them now. Suffice it to say that, much to our delight, we did find them, proudly displaying their two tails, on arches and corbels.

We were also looking for their sisters, female exhibitionist figures, also known as Sheela na gig. These figurative carvings of naked women boldly displaying themselves are found on churches and castles all over Europe, from Ireland (where they acquired their name) to Italy and Spain. 

12th Century Sheela na gig on Kilpeck Church, Herfordshire, England
 Male figures are often to be found close by displaying their genitals. 

Male figure from behind
There is disagreement among scholars about almost everything to do with the Sheela na gig and their continental counterparts. Their purpose, their origin, the etymology of the name itself are all hotly debated. The traditional view was that they were a warning against lust and the sins of the flesh, although it's hard to see them as in any way erotic. They were often placed above liminal spaces, windows and doorways, so they may have had some apotropaic function, to ward off evil, to guard and protect, perhaps specifically for the women of the community as they entered these portals for weddings, baptisms or churching after childbirth. They are also found in different cultures that have nothing to do with European Christianity. This is a Maori image from New Zealand.  

Maori carving from the marae at Waitangi 
One of my favourite theories comes from Ireland and draws parallels between the sheela na gig and the ancient Irish myth of the goddess who granted kingship. She would appear to prospective candidates as the Loathly Lady, a hideous hag, rejected by all except the one true king. When he slept with her she transformed into a beautiful maiden who gave him his crown and blessed his reign.  
Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady
We found what we were searching for in the small, ancient and isolated church of Monbos.  

Female Figure - Monbos Church
In the apse, at the far end of the small, dark church, were a number of pillars with carved and painted capitals. They showed foliage, vines and wheat ears, animals, hunting scenes, both male and female naked figures and a couple copulating. The effect was strongly pagan and seemed to me to confirm one of the other major theories relating to these figures: that they are pagan in origin and are to do with fertility.
Male Figure Monbos Church
There is no doubt that even to modern eyes they appear shockingly rude and seem to have no place in or on a religious building. Yet they have not been removed, they have survived the centuries, so they must have held importance for the people who gathered there to worship.  We can never know the true meaning of these images, or what belief lay behind their carving, or what was in the minds of those who worshipped in the churches where these figures display themselves. Did they really gaze up at them and reflect on the dangers of lust, the sins of the flesh and the prospect of eternal damnation? On the contrary, these figures look celebratory to me. Proud in their nakedness, shame-less, celebrating life and the natural abundance of field, vine and forest.

My belief that these images are essentially pagan and part of what might be an extremely ancient tradition was confirmed by a visit to the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux. Practically the first thing I saw there was the majestic and wonderful Venus of Laussel. An unassailable celebration of the feminine, she is approximately 25.000 years old. She is painted with red ochre and in her right hand she holds a crescent moon, marked with the thirteen lunar cycles. She has large breasts, ample hips and her left hand points to her vagina. She is an unambiguous celebration of the divine feminine and was found carved onto the wall of a rock shelter at Laussel in the Marquay area of the Dordogne, less than 50 miles from Monbos. 

The Venus of Laussel, Musée d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux, France 
Celia Rees

Friday, 1 November 2019



The Isles of Orkney and the seas around Scapa Flow make a natural harbour, and have been used by sea voyagers and travellers through the ages. The scattered islands seem to circle around each other, providing bays and beaches and inlets that have been used by viking raiders, by the Earls and their descendants, by lairds and lords and by the folk of the islands.

File:Wfm orkney map.svg - Wikipedia
However, in the 1940's, a huge construction project was begun which changed the pattern of the waters and many aspects of life on Orkney.  

The Royal Navy had had reasons to worry about the wide harbour of Scapa Flow. Back in 1918, after the Surrender, the fleet of German warships was anchored there while the powers at Versailles decided their fate. 

The Fleet Commander, Admiral Ludwig Von Reuter, sent a secret message to all seventy-four German ships, giving orders for each ship to be scuttled by their crews. The date he chose was 21st June, 1919, the date then proposed for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

Just after 11am on that day, all valves and sea-cocks were opened, bore-holes driven through bulkheads and portholes and doors unsealed. About an hour later, the crews on the Royal Navy guard-ships saw the captured fleet avoiding further disgrace sinking before their very eyes. Although some vessels were beached, fifty-four German ships were scuttled at Scapa Flow. This year, 2019, is the hundredth anniversary of that event.

Then, on 14th October 1939 - more than a decade later, and at the start of WWII - there was another blow to the Royal Navy's morale.  

Although Scapa Flow was considered invulnerable to submarine attack, a German U-47 submarine passed through the block-ships and torpedoed the elderly HMS Royal Oak which was anchored there. Over eight hundred sailors, including many young recruits, lost their lives.

In 1940, in response, Churchill decided that a set of concrete causeways would be built, blocking the eastern lanes into Scapa Flow and linking the islands South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimps Holm and Lambs Holm to the orkney Mainland
The Churchill Barriers were completed in 1944 and opened in May 1945. While the narrow causeways did make road travel between these islands possible, the changes to the flow of the water also damaged local fishing grounds.

Of course, Churchill's bold scheme would need a quantity of labourers, so a work force of over twelve thousand Italian prisoners-of-war was brought from the sands of the North African Campaign to the wild, wind-scoured Orkneys 

Under the Geneva convention, POW's were not supposed to take part in war work, so the barriers were described as "improvements to communications."

La capilla de los italianos | EL CAJÓN DE GRISOM
Here, amid all the seafare and warfare, is a small piece of history that I found inspiring and hopeful. 

While the men were working there as prisoners, they also built two chapels. The chapel on Lambsholm still exists: it is cared for, used for very occasional services and open for visitors.

The chapel was simply built. It was constructed from two concrete-covered nissen huts and given a bitumen coating. Only the ornate concrete facade hints at what can be found within.

In their spare time, prisoners decorated the inside of their nissen huts so that it resembled the stone, marble and mosaic interior of  their chapels and churches back in Italy.

Two men were largely responsible for the creation of the chapel and organising all the careful work. Signor Guiseppe Palumbi was the person who made the iron work and screens from whatever metals he found available. This hanging sanctuary lantern, below, is made from a bully beef tin.

Signor Domenico Chiochetti was the creator and painter of much of the artwork, especially the large mural behind the altar: a copy of "Madonna and Child" by the artist Nicolo Barabino. 

After so much about men and their machines in this post, I am glad of the fact that Chiochetti used the image from a card that his mother had given him as he left home and which he carried in his pocket throughout the war. He got home safely and he returned several times to the little chapel he had created on Lambs Holm.

After the wrecked ships and the concrete blocks and the evidence of past wars, the love spent on this tiny chapel - and the magic of the Orkney landscape and light - were things that lifted the heart.  

Penny Dolan 


Friday, 25 October 2019

The Clara Vine series, by Jane Thynne: Sue Purkiss

I first came across the Clara Vine books a couple of years ago. I’ve just re-read them and caught up the newest one, Solitaire - and I think I’ve enjoyed them even more this time round.

The story - because it is one story, albeit with different, wholly engrossing episodes - begins in Berlin in 1933 with the arrival of a young Englishwoman, Clara Vine. A rather unsuccessful actress, she has heard that the film industry in Berlin is expanding, and, as this coincides with a wish to put a distance between herself and an unwanted suitor, she decides to try her luck. 

She comes to the attention of Goebbels, the minister for propaganda who also has responsibility for the film industry. Through him she meets his wife, and through her the wives of the other men at the top of the Nazi Party - a potentially useful situation which is not lost on British intelligence. Clara, in short, becomes a spy  at the heart of the Nazi war machine.

There’s so much to enjoy in these books. Clara is a fascinating character. Jane Thynne explores the elements of her upbringing and character which have led her to be a good spy: her reserve, her self-sufficiency, her ability to inhabit different personas, to hide behind a mask. She’s a subtle creation: she isn’t an expert in self-defence, she doesn’t get into fights: she survives on her instinct, her intelligence and her quick wits. She’s kind and loyal, and she is in some ways vulnerable. She’s a character you come to care for. 

Each book centres on a mystery of some kind - a murder, a missing person, a plot that has to be uncovered. But all this is set very firmly in the context of Berlin in the years of the Nazi ascendancy. Clara is right at the centre of things, so through her Jane Thynne can tell us how they managed to coerce a whole population to go along with their awful creed: how they convinced the people that they were under threat from enemies within and without, and that the only chance of salvation was to trust in a charismatic leader. It makes chilling reading - more so now than when I first read the books a few years ago. 

The research behind all this is formidable. Jane Thynne is immensely knowledgeable and informative about life in Germany during this period: both the big historical events and the minutiae of everyday life, down to the name of a popular lipstick, the details of the food people ate, the cut of a uniform. She weaves actual incidents - the capture of two spies which almost destroyed the British intelligence operation in Europe, a plot to kidnap the Windsors, Eva Braun’s suicide attempts - into Clara’s story, and does this with such skill that it seems completely likely and natural. 

I think she’s a really excellent writer. I’m astonished that no-one’s made the books into a TV series as yet, and it surprises me that they aren’t far better known. Black Roses is the first one, and it's an absolute cracker.

Friday, 18 October 2019

'You really must get some flounces'

By Susan Vincent

Okay, here’s the thing. According to the United Nations, a truck full of textiles and garments gets dumped or burnt every second. Measuring this way, how many trucks full of waste clothing got thrown away in the time it took you to read to this point? Maybe around ten?

We all know that fast fashion is an ethical and environmental disaster. We know we have to consume less and reuse more. So let’s take a look back in time and see if we can learn anything from the practices of the past.

Any curator of costume will tell you that many – perhaps most ­– of the garments in their collections bear the signs of repair and alteration. For those skilled enough to read them, these seams and stitches are eloquent testimony to a garment’s changing life and also to the changing age, shape and desires of its wearer. Clothes are astonishingly malleable, although most of us have forgotten this. They can be made bigger or smaller; they can be augmented to assume a different shape; they can be cut apart into new incarnations. Surface decoration comes and goes, function changes, and one colour transforms to another.

Here are just four examples, one for each century.


This Armenian cope – an ecclesiastical vestment – dates from the seventeenth century. It is made from Persian velvet with an embroidered panel, or orphrey, edging the front. But the main body of the cope is constructed of joined-together pieces. Their shape and size – as you can see in the close-up – show clearly that they were once part of other garments. One or more of these was cut up, its scraps and panels husbanded, and carefully pieced together to form this new item.

The second example is a baby’s jacket that may have originated in India. It is made of a linen chintz, with four ties added as closures – both practical and jaunty – and dates from the second part of the eighteenth century. Like the cope, it has been sewn from reused fabric, either unpicked from an adult’s garment or cut out from a bed cover.

Here is a dress from the nineteenth century. Unlike most of the garments in museum collections, it has a documented provenance: we know exactly who wore it and when, and how it was altered and why. It belonged to a young woman called Amelia Beard (1844–1918; married to John Welles Hollenback in 1874), who lived in Brooklyn, New York. She first wore it in 1862, to be bridesmaid at the wedding of friends. Around ten years later, in response to a last-minute party invitation and finding herself with ‘nothing to wear’, Amelia adapted the gown to its present Polanaise style, the fine cotton muslin re-sewn as an overskirt cut away at the front and gathered high behind. 

And from the 1920s–30s, here is a delicious pair of silk lounging pyjamas. (The item is not in the public domain so I can’t include the image, but you can see it on the Met’s website here.) When originally made the legs were wide; sometime later they were narrowed for a new look.

While the signs of reuse lie within existing garments like these, they live also in documentary evidence. Letters are a great source for this. Look at Jane Austen’s to her sister Cassandra, for instance. 
The trend at the time was for dresses to be cut fuller towards the hem and increasingly trimmed at the bottom 
with frills and borders. When Jane reports to Cassandra on the modishness of this, she adds:

‘You really must get some flounces. Are not some of your large stock of white morning gowns just in a happy state for a flounce, too short?’(Letter dated 14 Oct. 1813)
Cassandra must have agreed and got busy with her needle, for twelve days later Jane enquired: ‘How do you like your flounce?’

The Austens also adapted the colour of garments, to change the purpose or extend their life. But dyeing – undertaken by a more or less skilled professional – could be expensive and the process hazardous for fabrics:

‘My Mother is preparing mourning for Mrs. E. K. – she has picked her old silk pelisse to peices [sic], & means to have it dyed black for a gown [...] how is your blue gown? – Mine is all to peices. [sic] – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch. – There was four shillings thrown away; – to be added to my subjects of never failing regret.’ (Letter 7 Oct. 1808)

Should we be trying to copy the reuse employed by Jane and Cassandra and almost every other wearer in the past? Is it possible to move forward to the future by going back to older ways?

We mustn’t kid ourselves that the Austens or any of our other forebears were any better than us. I’m sure that if they’d had the opportunity, they would have done precisely as we have. Theirs was a practice of necessity; ours – until environmental disaster forces our hand – is a moral choice. And in our time-poor and materially rich lives, it will take both commitment and resolve to change our habits, and the investment of buying better-made garments in the first place.

But one thing is certain. In producing cheaply, buying easily, and discarding without thought, we have not only misused our resources and polluted on a global scale. We have also killed the wonderful, ongoing life of our clothing.

1. Waistcoat (close-up on armhole alteration), 1610–20, silk and linen, V&A Museum, London, no. 179-1900

2. Cope, first half of 17th century, velvet. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1914, no. 14.67

3. Detail of cope

4. Baby’s jacket, c. 1760–c.1800, linen chintz. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Gift of Jonkvrouw C.I. Six, 's-Graveland, no. BK-1978-784

5. Evening dress, c.1877, cotton. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, Gift of Amelia Beard Hollenback, 1966, no. 2009.300.3290

6. Evening dress, back

7. Journal des Dames et des Modes, 5 October 1813, Costume Parisien: ‘Coeffe à la Chartreuse. Par-dessus de Perkale’. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, no. RP-P-2009-2432