The evolution of the enigmatic Sheela-na-gig
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Sheela-na-gigs are stone carvings of the female nude posed in a manner that displays and emphasizes the genitalia. These carvings appear in the Romanesque sculpture of France, Spain, England, and Ireland. This thesis explores the issues of scholarship that surround these enigmatic figures, addressing the lack of scholarly attention given by 19th century antiquarians who regarded her aggressive sexuality in negative terms. The author explores, as well as questions, modem scholarship that delves into the figure's origins,placement, purpose, location, and variations of form. This thesis supports the belief of a continental origin for the figure, retracing its evolutionary steps from continental Europe to England, then transferred to Ireland by Anglo-Norman Romanesque masons and sculptors, after the Norman Invasion in the twelfth century. An analysis of theories concerning the origins of the figure will be included, in order to provide evidence of the existence of sheela-na-gig prototypes, or archetypes. This study also examines the connection of this figure to the medieval church, as oppositional concepts of good and evil, and of life, death, and rebirth, are brought together in direct relationship to one another. These carvings have acquired numerous interpretations throughout Irish oral and written history, interpretations such as pagan fertility symbols, apotropaic figures, Celtic goddesses, images of saintly or sinful women interpreted in either a positive or a negative way, and as symbolic manifestations of pagan Celtic witchcraft as suggested at Kilpeck Church in England. By following the sheela-na-gig symbol through a series of changing interpretations, both architecturally and scholarly, beginning first with its Irish antiquarian discovery, then by examining its possible ancient European beginnings, then next to the twelfth, and finally the twenty-first century, I argue that the meaning of this symbolic image evolved in terms of its changing audience and usage throughout history. The meaning of the sheela-na-gig symbol evolved within each local culture concerned with issues relating to women, or the feminine aspects of God. It continues to invite people to make their own interpretations even today.