war-torn twelfth century was economic and artistic boom-time for
Europe, despite the pillage of warring princes who devastated
huge areas where rape, mass-murder and starvation stalked the
land. At the same time the monastic movement underwent spectacular
expansion, making the Romanesque the greatest art movement in
history. A large part of the expanding wealth
of the monasteries derived partly from the dodgy
renting-out of land to its previous owners, partly from their
control in the 11th century of the main routes which criss-crossed
Europe: the many Pilgrimage roads to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago
de Compostela. There was also the important factor of a century
or two of global warming which allowed a great increase in general
cultivation - and grape vines to flourish even in Ireland - before
the "mini-Ice Age" arrived in the 14th century, bringing
The Black Death in its train.
The rise of the monasteries itself
came with the great sigh of relief that Armageddon
had not come on the year 1000 A.D. (though
of course Homo sapiens is itself Armageddon extinguishing
the rest of the natural world). This was followed by the rise
of the papacy under Urban II, and his genocidal proclamation of
the terrible First Crusade, which attracted some of the most vicious
people in Western Europe, who set off, pillaging and burning all
the way to a blood-bath in multi-cultural Jerusalem, followed
by the establishment of (relatively tolerant) principalities in
Palestine. The beginning of a nine-hundred-year war against (and,
latterly, humiliation of) Islam, went with the promulgation of
the celibacy of the clergy in the Western (Catholic) church, mainly
to distinguish it from both the Eastern church and Islam.
At a time when armies, and some
individuals - including stonemasons - travelled huge distances
by foot or horseback (Eleanor of Aquitaine covered thousands of
miles every years with or without her husband Henry II of England,
Ireland and Anjou), the Pilgrimage to Santiago became the greatest
'tourist' industry ever. The pilgrimages to Compostela and Jerusalem
were symbolic of the pilgrim's progress through life to the Eternal
City. They were undertaken mainly to attain merit or to expiate
sin: even eating fat meat during lent could be sufficient reason
to go (or be directed to go) to Santiago as penitence.
In our own times the autobahns
of Germany have produced the Autobahnkirche (Catholic and
Lutheran), open at all times to service the 'spiritual requirements'
of fraught travellers. These pit-stops for the pious and frazzled
are pale and sad imitations of the churches which lined the routes
to Rome and, especially, Santiago. Catering for poor pedestrians
as well as the rich on horseback or in carriages, they were, of
course, far more frequent than the service-stops on modern motorways.
This servicing of the Pilgrim
Roads from the Baltic and the Hungarian Plain to Atlantic
Spain brought - and distributed - wealth throughout Europe: wealth
and the means to move it unknown since Roman times. This wealth,
of course, attracted all sorts of unwelcome attachments, such
as entertainers, jongleurs and whores, pedlars of all kinds,
and people displaying deformities or strange animals. Even now,
in France, the last survivors of a disgusting tradition of exhibiting
bears, dolphins and (at markets) doped piglets and kids in cages
for children to stroke, attract no opprobrium from a population
brought up to regard animals as stupid machines.
Concupiscent and/or adulterous woman
being dragged to Hell by a devil, a capital at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire.
It also created many thousands of craftsmen, including stonemasons
and sculptors. The latter could not have failed to observe
that the richer people become, the meaner they generally get:
to become rich you often have to be mean in all senses of
the word. Where money was newest, during the land-grab of
the Reconquista in Spain, it seems that the arriviste nouveaux-riches
often cheated or short-changed those who built the churches
that they endowed, for very many churches there show signs
of incompletion, with scaffolding holes not filled in.
But boom ensured
the slow economic demise of the monasteries, due to the rise
of the cities which used money, and the new monarchies which
they serviced. The monasteries used almost no cash, the economy
being largely one of deferred payment by goods, services,
labour and agricultural produce. However, the economy that
they stimulated was a cash economy based on import (mainly
spices and other luxuries from the East) and export (such
as wool and textiles from Yorkshire, Northern France and modern
Belgium). The centres of power shifted from the great abbeys
to towns which were centres of pilgrimage in themselves -
Limoges, Tours, for example, and towns which were natural
hubs of trade and intellect - Poitiers (with its mythical
Courts of Love and six Romanesque churches), Toulouse,
Paris, Laon, Bologna, Salamanca, Pisa, London and Oxford.
The monastic dislike of money and resentment of the rising
rich new towns with their luxuried class and their squalid,
supporting (if not suppurating) underclass, fed into the iconography
of sin, notably in depictions of Wealth
(avaritia) - even on large urban churches such as Sainte-Croix
in Bordeaux. A very fine example of a rich man or moneylender
tortured by hellish monsters can be seen on an interior capital
(Somme). (For more on monsters click here.)
how well-founded their fear of money turned out to be. Luxury
largely depends on usury
(moneylending). Because usury remained a criminal sin (and
forbidden also to Muslims), the lending economy (necessary
for most enterprises beyond monastery lands) was initially
forced upon the Jews, who were then reviled for this as well
as for being 'Christ-killers'. The business quickly passed
to professional bankers (mostly from Lombardy) - while the
Church itself sold not just benefices to the second sons of
counts, princes and merchants, but pardons and indulgences
to the masses. This, of course, eventually formed the basis
of anti-Christian capitalism - and sowed the seeds of the
Reformation which encouraged it.
Wealthy man or money-changer with moneybag,
As power slipped
away from the Benedictines and Cistercians to the fat clergy
of the new cathedrals based in in the burgeoning towns - and
the powerful order of Dominicans who used their control of
the Holy Inquisition as an instrument of terror, Europe descended
into what we now think of as mediæval superstition,
often (and still) obsessed with blood. All sorts of horrors
erupted out of Christianity - notably the 'Blood Libel' invented
by the clergy of Norwich cathedral in order to acquire a prestigious
and lucrative boy-saint at the expense of the 'Christ-killers'.
The Blood Libel - the cleverly-insane calumny that Jews used
the blood of (usually crucified) boys to make Passover matsos
- spread all over Europe. The last official case, in Kiev
in 1911, was instigated by an extreme monarchist group and,
despite nobbling of the judge and jury by the Tsarist authorities,
set free the Jewish scapegoat who soon afterwards emigrated
to America. In America today the Blood Libel is still promulgated
by video, and latterly, of course, Arabs (notably the Defence
Minister of Syria) have started to re-invigorate the story.
linked Christian 'spirituality' to violence and ethnicide: the
church militant was born - and in no time created the Inquisition.
(It took Islam nearly a thousand years to descend to the same
level and attempt a payback.) With the decline of the non-urban
monasteries and the accompanying rise of Gothic cathedrals centered
in the cities, came a complete change in the art and the iconography
echoing the change in outlook or Zeitgeist. The whole
richly meaningful, and complex and sometimes earthy iconographic
repertoire of the Romanesque became old-fashioned like the churches.
The Romanesque was very firmly and sanely installed between
Heaven and Hell, whereas
the unhinged Gothic attempted to float to Heaven on its pinnacles
and spires and Inquisitional unreason, despising the earthy,
folksy, grounded qualities of the Romanesque. As a result, it
served the illiterate badly, driving them to superstition.
end of the twelfth century a crucial shift in the Western European
(but not Eastern Orthodox) perspective on the crucifixion occurred.
Whereas from early Roman Christian times Jesus was portrayed
as standing triumphant (like a latter-day Apollo) on his cross,
conquering death, by the 13th century Jesus was shown in gruesome
suffering, hanging from the cross in agony. This might have
had something to do with the rise of the mendicant orders, and
of the new cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary introduced by St
Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians. The triumph over death's
dark dominion was no longer due directly to the single event
of the crucifixion, but, instead, to the agony and suffering
of the crucifixion. Suffering in itself became meritorious,
as Western Europe became richer - and more war-torn.
features remarkably few Biblical themes. Adam and Eve (almost
always with their 'private parts'covered by hands or fig-leaf)
are common on capitals; Daniel and the Lions a little less so,
but in greater and marvellous variety. Occasionally there are
Noah and his Ark, Tobias (carrying the huge fish) from the obscure
book of Tobit, and, from the New Testament, Lazarus
and his dog under the Rich Man's table. Most Romanesque sculpture
is moralistic (e.g. the Psychomachia or War between the
Virtues and Vices), or minatory: 'these things you may not
do if you wish to escape damnation'. Many of the latter
type occur on corbels, though in some places they were deemed
important enough to be placed on doorways and interior capitals.
often illustrated also the punishment of sin in Hell, often
symbolically as a person being swallowed by a lion or monster:
the jaws of Hell. Illustrations of Luxuria almost always
show the punishment thought to be meted out eternally to those
living 'La Dolce Vita': snakes, toads or even tortoises forever
suckling/biting their desiccated dugs, or entering/emerging
from their vulvas.
||This simple representation of Luxuria,
low down on the archivolt of the 12th century church at
Olcoz (Navarra, Spain), is being tormented by one snake
climbing up her right leg, while another has slid over her
shoulder, down below her breast, and is heading for her
St Bernard famously
protested (around 1125) about the fabulous monsters and other
frippery which diverted the attention of the (illiterate) people
from their imminent damnation. Indeed, he said, "there
is seen everywhere such a marvellous diversity of forms that
people read with greater pleasure what is carved in stone than
what is written in books, and would rather gaze all day upon
these singular creations than to meditate upon the Divine Word."
Then he reveals himself as the mean cleric he was by adding:
"O God! if one is not ashamed of the childishness of these
carvings, why does not one spare the expense ?" And expensive
they could be. The façade of Notre-Dame-La-Grande in
Poitiers could not be carved today for less than tens of millions
of pounds sterling.
feature creatures such as these on a 5th century mosaic
from Jerusalem showing Orpheus charming not just real
beasts but a centaur and the god Pan as well.
consider that the Orpheus figure here (with Phrygian cap
that survives symbolically today on the head of Marianne,
who personifies France on French stamps, etc.) is Jesus
as Lord of Beasts - and Gods and Monsters.
with Orpheus as Adam, Lord of the Beasts in Eden,
on a 5th century ivory, and with a 12th century carving
of God the Father or Jesus as Lord of Beasts.
prefiguring Romanesque themes.
corbels for the most part represented two groups of subjects:
beasts and monsters; and images of sinners mostly on the margins
of society, including entertainers: jongleurs, acrobats, tumblers,
contortionists, mummers, ventriloquists, 'musical' farters,
and, of course, musicians.
Le Puch (Gironde) : Performing Bear and musician-tumblers.
walls of churches lent themselves to didactic art, where the
ideas of the sculptors and the intentions of the patrons could
meet. The patrons regarded the figures as a gallery of sinners,
while the artists drew from their own lay and popular culture
in carving the detail: what Glenn
W. Olsen has suggested as a coming-together of the preoccupations
of monks and the voice of the countryside. A somewhat similar
situation occurred in late 18th century England, when the great
artist Hogarth sold his prints and engravings of low life and
debauchery (Gin Alley and so on) in quantity for people
to hang to amaze and amuse and smugly instruct each other in
the drawing-rooms (originally withdrawing-rooms) that
had recently come into fashion.
Bewhiskered shawm-player, Cénac (Dordogne)
But in the thirteenth
century corbel-tables disappeared from outside the churches
(where most social and economic activity took place) or moved
inside, making them less visible. At the same time, the images
of entertainers became stereotyped as well as much less frequent.
In addition, the virtual disappearance of Romanesque images
of monstrous creatures points perhaps to an urban society that
was more smug and less imaginative. The symbolism and meaning
attached to corbels degenerated into mere grotesquerie,
and was largely banished to barely-visible roof-bosses and gargoyles,
and to amusing misericords approachable only by the élite.
With the rising
of lofty cathedrals which expressed the worldly power of the
Church, religious art in Europe began a terminal decline into
the sickening sentimentality of Christian Realism which continues
to this day in its obsession with crucifixion, martyrdom, saintly
masochism, and hysteric or ascetic hallucination.
There seems to
be an innate human tendency to revere if not worship images, and
the monotheisms have fought a losing battle against this wired-in
weakness (which no non-humans have) - as against other evolutionary
errors. Perhaps the difference between the Romanesque and the
Gothic (with its roof-bosses and misericords and gargoyles), as
between the Sermons in Stone and the Petrified Hags is illuminated
by the following quotation from Mircea Eliade's book on hermaphroditism,
The Two and the One:
metaphysical significance of symbols is lost,
people perceive symbols at increasingly cruder and crasser levels."
Rathcline Church (Longford) photographed
by Gay Cannon.
With the rise
of the Papacy from its lowest point in the 10th century, and the
rise of the Gothic cathedrals, came the anti-Christian obsession
with money. The corruption and venality that the Benedictines,
Augustinians and Cistercians abominated turned into an industry
- in fact a new economic engine. The monasteries had created wealth
through bringing marginal land into productive cultivation - and
reducing the forests of France, Italy, Northern Spain and England
by nearly a third. They had established safe trade-routes along
Roads, so that the towns could create wealth through
import and export.
between the world-views of the 12th and 13th centuries can hardly
be exaggerated. It is something like the difference of German
experience between the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler.
Or, perhaps, from another point of view, like the difference between
Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and in the 1990s.
For example, the
Lateran Council of 1215 permitted heterosexual marriage in
churches - thus reversing the teaching of St Augustine and the
early church. This allowed the parish churches and cathedrals
to impose charges for the wedding and related services, which
previously had been held (if at all) outside the church. This
same Council promulgated the incredible doctrine of Transubstantiation
and instituted the practice of Confession. The
Second Lateran Council in 1139 (when the papacy and hierarchy
were still relatively weak) had been much more concerned with
behaviour, excommunicating jousters and urging the 'repression
of marriage and concubinage among priests, deacons, subdeacons,
monks, and nuns'. In this council also, the rising power of princes
was reflected in Canon 20, wherein kings and princes were commanded
to dispense justice in consultation with the bishops, whose power
was growing more or less in step.
from Constantinople and the many other places pillaged during
the various Crusades (which were financed by merchants who expected
a good return) also fuelled the new economy. Contacts with Arab
and Muslim cultures brought new ideas - for example the quasi-Sufic/neo-Platonic
idea of Chivalry, which was the direct opposite of the behaviour
of the Crusader thugs and war-lords. The highly-sophisticated
and tolerant culture of Moorish Spain, victim of the so-called
shameless and terrible Reconquistà during the 12th
century, provided new tools for scholarship and learning. The
first universities were set up...and so on...
The first capitalist enterprise
involving shareholders occurred also in the 12th century near
Toulouse, when a group of merchants teamed up to build water-mills
on the river Garonne, and distributed the resulting profits as
interest on investment.
|This capital at Piacenza in Italy
shows a squatting female a little like the later, insular
sub-class called sheela-na-gigs - but the bulbous
eyes of her and the devouring monsters are distinctly
Avaritia and Luxuria
quickly lost their status as the two most terrible sins. The brief
experimental window of Christian community in the West, which
was carried from Egypt via Spain (where it died out under the
Vizigoths) to Ireland and thence eventually (with the travelling
saints such as Columbanus, Gall, Fiacra etc.) to the Frankish
kingdoms, ceased in the 12th century, when the Roman Church became
married to wealth. The last pillar of Jesus' fragile teaching,
which had been shakily re-erected for 600 years, was toppled.
Eight hundred years later, wealth, luxury, vainglory and carnality
are the cornerstones of our culture. Now, la luxure means
'lechery' (from lècher, to lick) in French - while
'luxury' is le luxe. The modern French word for Luxuria
is la crapule.
(For more on
the Egyptian Connection, click here.)
So the serious
monks' minatory corbels became decorative heads and beasts, jokey/lampooning
roof-bosses and gargoyles to amuse the merchants and bishops who
were the economic and moral backbone of increasingly town-based
religion. Unlike the didactic and minatory Romanesque sculptures,
roof-bosses and misericords are caprices and satires carved for
a kind of freedom-zone within a church. The post-Romanesque sub-class
of exhibitionists known (for peculiar historical reasons) as
sheela-na-gigs ) are, however, desperately serious, as their
hideous appearance and crude execution demonstrate. They are much
more likely to have been placed on the walls of churches to acquire
status rather than to 'paganise' or colonise Christianity
with 'old magic'. In Ireland they moved onto castles, and, as
their significance was lost they ended up on gateways all over
Europe (e.g. Antwerp, Milan,
Barcelona), then on town houses (e.g. Drogheda),
and, at their last gasp, on the baroque handles of flintlock pistols.
However, a few exhibitionist images of Satan can be found on or
in Spanish Plateresque churches. (By the fifteenth century Satan
was generally thought of as a king - the king of Hell - following
300 years of the rise, and rise, of monarchies.)
to be employed in carving elaborate tombs for princes and princes
of the church. Eventually, images of carnality and venality degenerated
into lampoons such as are found on misericords and pew-ends -
and into the bizarre and usually very crude female exhibitionists
which to this day defy explanation: the so-called Sheela-na-gigs,
originally named from the grotesque
figures found in Ireland.
These figures have neither the wit nor skill of the Romanesque
corbels and capitals, and impress mainly by a kind of bleak paranoia
emanating from them. Over a hundred have been claimed
for Ireland, of which 12 have disappeared and a further dozen
do not display genitals. There is less than half that total in
Britain - where more Romanesque exhibitionists are discovered
as time goes by.
Whereas even the
most rustic Romanesque images of carnality had a certain folksy
Ithyphallic male as load-bearing corbel
inside the porch at Virville (Seine-Maritime)
images more resemble in their shrill insistence the mural paintings
that appeared and disappeared in Belfast in recent years.
Two vulva-pulling exhibitionist females from county Cavan,
click for a high-resolution photo
photos by Gay Cannon
compare the figure on the right with
a picture of Satan
in a Spanish manuscript
as displayed in the County Museum, Ballyjamesduff.
Yet the Romanesque figures were
not all tucked away in their minatory context on corbel-tables
and nave-capitals. As we have seen, some
were on the capitals of doorways where all who entered could see
them. One particularly large and striking example is the concupiscent,
lascivious woman - naked except for her shoes - falling into Hell,
unavoidable on one of the four pendentives of the dome of the
richly-sculptured church of Civray (Vienne) - overlooking the
click to enlarge
On the other pendentives
are: a squatting, naked but not exhibitionist bearded male figure
with arms raised; a naked non-exhibitionist male bending forward
with his hands on his knees; and a bull's head.
exhibitionist in the company of other sinners and of snakes can
be seen on a remarkable rustic Romanesque font at Cleckheaton
this point it is important to point out that concupiscentia
(what we would now call 'sex') was not only the act of penetration
act: all 'lewd' and lecherous behaviour, from frottage and inter-femoral/-crural
to oral and anal sex were also condemned. For an insight into
the Christian ascetic approach to sex, click here.
All the elements
that were to be found in the thousands of Romanesque corbels can
be found in the dozens of the post-Romanesque sheela-na-gig
figures that survive - but disturbingly exaggerated: some dire
message is being screamed out with neither wit nor art to help
- but surely not a warning against the sins of the flesh ? And
whereas there are more male than female Romanesque figures, males
are extremely rare after the 12th century. Couples
were not uncommon in the 11th and 12th centuries, but rare thereafter
- the only example known to me being at Aldsworth
in Gloucestershire. Acrobatic figures are also extremely rare,
most Sheela-na-gigs being portrayed more or less the stance
of the figures above - legs splayed and usually bent, feet out-turned
and hands pulling enormous vulvas, often with labia and sometimes
with clitoris shown. Several (such as Ballynahinch
Castle, county Tipperary - one of a few showing its anus)
look as if they are dancing. A few (mostly in Ireland) have one
hand to their heads in a kind of salute, while the other passes
above or beneath a thigh to pull or indicate the vulva, while
the out-turned feet are at different heights, strangely reminiscent
of oriental dance - in particular the images of the god Shiva
And compare the Sheela above with a 17th century
wooden statue of Kali menstruating.
Note the hand to the head.
the photo to enlarge
An Indian input
into the phenomenon is, however, hardly likely. Although it
has recently been shown by Mercia MacDermott in her book Explore
Green Men that the motif of the "Green
Man" came to Europe through trade with India, where
they originated as kirttimukhas and makaras -
motifs of mythical creatures some 2000 years old - and although
it is well-established that Assyrian and Babylonian motifs came
into Romanesque art via the Christian art of Armenia
and Georgia, the female exhibitionist motif moved from the ancient
West to the relatively modern East. H.D.
Sankalia has shown that pre-Christian Baubo-figurines
from Greece and Asia Minor became the headless, splay-legged,
arm-raised Shameless Woman talismanic figures of Maharashhtra
and Uttar Pradesh in the first centuries of the Christian Era.
The more modern sculptures illustrated above might well be later
native developments, but could also be influenced by Insular
sheela-na-gigs, since cultural traffic is never one-way.
themselves bear strong resemblance to the ancient Greek Baubos,
as well as to the 8th century BC Kushite figurines of the dwarf-goddess
(who had an ithyphallic male consort, Bes)
found in modern Sudan.
Figurines of Baubo (and other 'un-Christian' themes
such as lovers) seem to have been plentiful in France, for one
is on display at the museum in Agen (Lot-et-Garonne). Such figures
were on-the-spot inspiration for Romanesque church-carvings
of un-Christian types and behaviour.
photo by Julianna Lees
and "Green Men" are found all over Europe in both
Romanesque and post-Romanesque contexts. There is even a Romanesque
female almost-exhibitionist foliage-spewer on a nave-capital
of the church at Melbourne
in Derbyshire. Sheela-na-gigs, on the other hand, are
found only in Britain and Ireland: so far, I have found only
two sheela-figures (one doubtful) in France.
Moreover, the famous South Asian female exhibitionist figures
(such as in the Bhimsen Temple of Kathmandu, illustrated in
Andersen's Witch on the Wall, 1977, page 132) date from
the 17th century and are, with their feet-to-ears vulva-pulling
posture, Hindu versions of Romanesque sculptures. Other figures
illustrated by Sankalia are even more modern, more like sheela-na-gigs,
and are even to this day being carved in Indonesia at least.
awkward stance of sheela-na-gigs whose hands pass underneath
a thigh to indicate or pull the vulva has Romanesque antecedents,
a good example of which is at Rochester Cathedral (Kent), where
the (hacked) exhibitionist not only performs this contortion
while sticking out her tongue, but also brandishes two fish.
This combined motif occurs in a few other churches - while an
early 11th century carving in the church of San Ididoro in León
shows a female suckling snakes while holding up sea-monsters
which resemble Indian makaras.
click to see this figure in context
Interestingly, there seem to be no intermediate carvings - though
a late-Romanesque tongue-protruding exhibitionist at Tugford in
Shropshire also has something of the sheela-na-gig about
it - perhaps it is the legs which just fade away into nothing.
Tugford (Shropshire) photographed
by John Harding.
16th century figure on Ballinderry
Castle (Galway) - otherwise crudely carved - has elaborate
and asymmetric braids which recall the tresses and hair-styles
of the Romanesque figures. A recently-discovered figure from Rahara
Church has symmetrical ones, likewise beautifully carved, and
- uniquely - good enough to be Romanesque.
Rahara (Roscommon) photographed
by Gay Cannon.
of PHOTOGRAPHS of MALE and FEMALE EXHIBITIONISTS
on this site, outside this
on the nature of 'christianity'