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Images of Lust: SEXUAL CARVINGS ON MEDIEVAL CHURCHES by Anthony Weir and James Jerman (B. T. Batsford, London; distributed by David & Charles Inc., North Pomfret, Vt. 05053: $39.95; 166 pp., illustrated)

March 15, 1987|Thomas Cahill | Cahill is co-author of "A Literary Guide to Ireland" (Scribner's).

Sex is everywhere. We sometimes believe that it was Freud who woke us to this thought, but, in truth, sex has always been everywhere--and everyone has always known it. From the dark, plush contours of the first human images--the exaggeratedly sexual "Venus" figures carved by Cro-Magnon--through the pale, bald lingams of the East to the many-breasted magna maters of Asia Minor, sex and sexuality have been seen as central--at least in some sense . Sex was everywhere even for (perhaps especially for) the Victorians, who draped the legs--excuse me, limbs--of pianos to disguise their true nature and who could not permit the word bull to be uttered in polite company.

The great question is: central in what sense? What is the color, weight, and shape of sexuality in a particular society? How is sex valued? The answers will change interestingly from one culture to another, if we can rightly interpret the signs left to us.

Scattered through the British Isles are examples of a monstrous stone image, called in Ireland a sheela-na-gig. The image is of a woman, naked and squatting, who calls attention to her open vulva usually by parting the labia with her hands. If this sounds like a Hustler centerfold, it should also be noted that the primeval features of her face speak only of terror and death and that the bones of her rib cage are always visible. Sheela - na-gigs are usually found in out-of-the-way places, well-worn by time and weather (and, it would sometimes seem, rubbing). The few sheelas that have survived in more settled areas have normally been defaced (if that's the right word) or removed from their original public setting to the equivalent of someone's closet. Ireland has three times the sheelas of England and Wales combined. No one knows where the name comes from or what it means.

How old are the sheelas ? Francoise Henry in her three-volume masterwork, "Irish Art," gives us no help, for she refuses even to acknowledge them. Though they appear most commonly in stonework of the Romanesque period, there is not that much pre-Romanesque stonework still standing, especially in Ireland. Most observers, unable to interpret the sheela -image with certainty, have supposed it to be an echo of a pre-Christian theme, a pagan survival. This view is supported by the artistic crudeness of all the extant images, so unlike the careful disposition of mass and shape in other Romanesque carving.

Anthony Weir and James Jerman think otherwise. They have discovered on the Continent an entertaining array of obscure sexual carvings--exhibitionist figures, couplings (both heterosexual and homosexual), female nudes who suckle snakes, and phallic ornaments. They have found these in the corbels and corners of 12th-Century French and Spanish churches, and they have concluded that these were the models for the sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and Britain. They have further concluded that the purpose of all these carvings was admonitory--"Go thou and do otherwise."

There is no reason, however, to assume that the now-vanished stonework (and woodwork) of pre-Romanesque Ireland did not contain sheela-na-gigs . More than this, the sheelas seem so very different from the continental carvings, which tend to be comic and playful in the best medieval manner. It must be granted that the continental carvers are sometimes exhorting the faithful to avoid the sins portrayed, but just as often (and sometimes at the same moment) they are fooling around--making light of the devil (who was known to hate human laughter) and sin and all human (especially clerical) seriousness. Occasionally, as in the case of the phalluses, we are in the presence of a charm of pre-Christian origin. Even if the sheelas are charms, which they may well be, they are female charms. Nowhere do the authors succeed in explaining how the continental carvings, predominantly male, could account for the insular carvings, almost exclusively female.

They have found an incredible sheela in a Cambridgeshire church, the only one extant to be shown with a male--a priapic, beastlike chap approaching her on all fours. The image is exceedingly interesting and raises a host of questions--especially about the date of the carving, which the authors completely ignore. Whatever the scene may tell us, it is not what the authors think it is: a missing link that connects the lively continental images of lust to the dreadful sheelas . Rather, the sheelas remain as enigmatic and unsettling as ever.

But until a better presentation comes along, we have to thank Weir and Jerman for their heroic picture-taking, which has given us a book that is visually original and intriguing. The text, unfortunately, is ahistorical and badly argued, and takes at times the tone of a quasi-emancipated Edwardian spinster on tour. Of the Cambridgeshire carving, for instance, the authors declare that "one begins to think it would look indecent even in a bordello." C'mon, guys.

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