Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Saturday 8 October 2016

A sordid sexual scandal in Whittlesford church, Cambs.

Whittlesford is a village a few miles south of Cambridge. It's pretty and prosperous, no doubt the home of many dons and other high-minded individuals. You imagine that the worst that ever happens here is that occasionally someone forgets themselves and eats a scone not made from Fair Trade ingredients. It's probably not where you'd expect to find unseemly lewd behaviour; however, if you go to the church, of all places, that's exactly what you'll discover.

This deplorable licentiousness hides itself in plain sight, as if daring the parishioners to acknowledge it while simultaneously revelling in the knowledge that it's got away with it for centuries and isn't going to censored or censured any time soon. It takes the form of a carving on the south side of the tower, right above the path leading to the church's main door, yet probably many people who walk past fail to even notice it. In the photo above, it's immediately below the clock; the carving is in low relief, which partly explains its semi-invisibility: it's best seen in a raking light, when the sun is low in the east or west.

On the left is a sheela na gig, a woman displaying her exaggerated vulva, and, on the right, an ithyphallic male figure is lasciviously approaching her. Sheela (sometimes spelt sheila) na gigs are found in several English churches (the most famous example is in Kilpeck, Herefordshire), and in those of other western European countries. Sexualised male figures are also known, but as far as I know Whittlesford is the only place in England where male and female come together, so to speak.

She is squatting with legs splayed, (some claim that sheelas in this position are giving birth), and holds her vulva open with one hand. Her face is to me the most interesting thing about her; it's mask-like, and feels Anglo-Saxon (compare it with the Sutton Hoo helmet, for example). Can anyone claim that if they saw this face out of context they'd assume it was female? No attempt has been made to feminise her; she's depicted as bald and almost looks as if she's sternly moustached.

Is the male figure a man who's been elongated to fit the lintel and who happens to be on all fours as that's the most convenient way of whispering enticements in his partner's ear, or is it a human-animal hybrid? (A goat would perhaps be the most likely creature.) He, or it, has a very obvious erection, and his testicles are also clearly delineated. Is she preparing herself to accept his advances, or ignoring or rejecting him? Her left arm juts out in a way that could be, if you want, read to mean that she's elbowing him away.

Some writers of guide books come over all coy when describing the figures; Pevsner in his Cambridgeshire volume of 1954 couldn't even bring himself to use his own words but relies on those of Dr G H S Bushnell: 'a naked woman in a very compromising position, with a human-headed creature, goat or bull, approaching her over the head of the window.'  This is a little masterpiece of obfuscation. There is nothing remotely 'compromising' about the sheela's stance: it's completely uncompromising and unashamed. When Simon Bradley revised the volume in 2014 he kept substantially the same description, adding only that the male is 'aroused'. In 1983 Norman Scarfe, the author of the Shell Guide to Cambridgeshire, described 'a human-headed male animal and encouraging naked lady: set too high to influence churchgoers', which is lively and accurate up to a point.

What everyone who notices the figures on the tower want to know is: what do they mean, and what are they doing on a church? I can't help you there much, I'm afraid. Your guess is just about as good as mine or anyone else's. In a previous post (about Felmersham church, Beds) I've summarised the main theories about why carvings like this appear in churches. Sheelas are often said to be pagan goddesses or fertility figures, and this is perhaps the theory that fits this particular carving best. Maybe whoever put it high on the tower overlooking the countryside wanted to encourage nature to indulge in hanky-panky and reproduce so the human population could eat. Or perhaps not. Who knows?

Other unknowns about the carving are its date, and whether it's in its original position. The tower itself is 12th century, and I think the carving is likely to be contemporary (most sexual carvings in churches seem to date from this period) and has always been intended to act as a lintel on the tower. The male figure spreads himself quite naturally over the arch. On the other hand, some claim (see the excellent Cambridgeshire Churches website, for example) that the carving is older, perhaps much older, perhaps even of pagan origin, than the tower, and that it was reused. If this is true, it's even more puzzling: if they just wanted a bit of old stone, why didn't they turn it around so the carving was hidden?

The top of the tower is much more recent, dating from the 15th century, and it has some weathered but characterful figures surveying the churchyard. This one seems to be responding with shocked surprise to the shenanigans going on below him. It's easy to think that if you waited long enough at the foot of the tower someone would come along, look up, see the sheela and her attendant male, and react with exactly this expression.

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