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.
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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
www.celiarees.com

Friday, 1 November 2019

A HARBOUR, A BARRIER AND HOPE by Penny Dolan





 

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 

@pennydolan1