The Mysterious Medieval Carvings of Women Exhibitionists
Sheela-na-gigs are medieval stone figures of a naked woman spreading her legs. She is shown using her hands to pull open and proudly display her exaggerated genitals.
What makes these figures so puzzling is the fact that they occur predominantly in medieval religious buildings, such as churches and monastic sites. They are not something you would expect to see in a church. But a sizable number of them have also been found in castles, holy wells, bridges, culverts, and pillars.
These figures usually occur in isolation, unattached and freed from any background that could establish their provenance. Their origin and significance remain a mystery.
When these carvings first came to scientific attention two centuries ago, they were considered too vulgar, lewd, and repulsive for serious study. It was only in the last few decades that academics have turned their interests to these curious carvings.
While the sheela-na-gigs appear to be erotic in nature, they are believed to be pagan symbols of fertility or warnings against lust. Some theorized they might also have been used as protection against evil, hence their positions over entranceways.
In the Romanesque art of the mediaeval period, lust was often portrayed as a naked woman with snakes and toads eating her breasts and genitals. Church buildings along many pilgrimage routes depicted a range of exhibitionist figures, both male and female, to alert the faithful to the dangers of the sin of lust. The emphasis was always on the genitalia, which were made disproportionately larger. These Romanesque female exhibitionist carvings might have given rise to sheela-na-gigs.
Sheela-na-gigs can be found all over western and central Europe, but Ireland and Britain have the highest number of surviving sheela-na-gig carvings. The Heritage Council of Ireland has identified at least a hundred examples across the island. There are also about forty-five carvings in Britain.