Kilpeck, Hertfordshire-Church of St. Mary and St. David, England
11-12th century CE
The Sheelagh-na-gig from Hertfordshire is a relatively small stone carving located on an exterior wall underneath the eaves of a British Romanesque church notable for the overwhelming abundance of pagan iconography in its decorative program. She is specifically an abstract, if not crude, figuration of a hag-like female form indicating her enlarged genitals with her hands. Although this Sheelagh-na-gig dates to the 11th or 12th century, she shares with earlier Celtic traditions of human depiction a departure from naturalistic representation. She can be identified as a symbol of fertility and abundance rather than a true depiction of a human female by the subordination of her tiny limbs and torso to those most significant in the Celtic iconography of gods and goddesses; her head and sexual characteristics. Thus, any sense of realistic proportion is abandoned. Her head is similar in form and conception to earlier Celtic designs in that her facial features have been highly summarized and abstracted. The mouth of the Sheelagh-na-gig has been eliminated entirely, her large nose is represented by an incised line, and her eyes are merely deeply punched holes with one incised surrounding circle. The head is nearly circular with a slight indication of a chin and there are no ears.
The identification of the Sheelagh-na-gig as a fertility goddess and her location on a medieval church of the 11-12th century is particularly indicative in studying Celtic Christianity in Britain and especially in Ireland where it seems these figures have their origin. Although part of a large vocabulary of obscene carving common in medieval decorative schemes, this figure is of particular interest because mother goddesses of this type can be identified with the Irish St. Brigid, a saint of the 5th c. BCE attributed with the founding the monastic community of Kildare. The goddess Brigit of the Celts, and the Irish St. Brigid are remarkable in their similarities. They share te same feast/celebration day February 1, Imbolc, in the Celtic tradition. They are both associated with miracles of life-giving, mid-wifery, and abundance, and in some locales are both referred to as the mothers of gods. St. Brigid is sometimes called the second mother of Christ, the Mary of Gael. The goddess Brigit was the mother of the Dagda, one of the most powerful gods in the Celtic pantheon.
By the time of this 11-12th century Sheelagh-na-Gig’s creation, goddess worship among the new elite, Christian priests and scholars, was mostly routed. However, Brigit’s appearance in Hertfordshire’s church decoration is evidence that it perhaps remained to some extent in folklife. Perhaps in this sphere there was still confusion about the trifold Brigit and the holy trinity of Christianity. Particularly illustrative of this possibility is a Sheelagh-na-gig located at Killinaboy in Ireland. The figure is placed directly above the entranceway to a church ruins. In essence the congregation would enter the womb and protection of the goddess while simultaneously entering the church and protection of the God of the Christians (Condren, 65). Other examples of Sheelagh-a-na-gigs are located on stone crosses especially at crossroads and on the moors possibly linking them to the territorial and local aspects of mother goddesses.
In spite of the Celtic origins of the Sheelagh-na-gig, it is important not to disregard the fact that they are also as above mentioned part of a large body of grotesque carving in medieval sculpture. Similar genital bearing figures, even male figures can be found frequently amongst the sculpture of Romanesque and Gothic churches. For example, a male figure at Autun, France bends over to expose his anus and testicles. There are various explanations for this type of art. One explanation being that grotesques were a visual means to biblical understanding and meant to enhance the fear of god in illiterates, although even contemporaries of this type of art found this unconvincing. St. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of them thus, "What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters under the very eyes of the brothers as they read? Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities we should at least regret what we have spent on them."(Sheridan and Ross, 7 from St. Bernard’s Apologia 12th c.). Another explanation centered around an old superstition that "the exposure of the genitalia was supposed to be an evil-averting act"(Sheridan and Ross, 65). This may be, but in light of the association of Brigit with St. Brigid and the locations where many of the figures are found, these explanations are if not suspect then at least secondary. It seems more likely that Christianity had not thoroughly washed its hands of paganism even at this point in history.
Sheridan and Ross, 7, 65