Irish-American Interior Design: Sheela na gig

Let me offer a moment of warning before we enter the word of the Sheela na gig: As decorative motifs go, this one is rather rude. In fact, it is so rude as to be legitimately shocking, doubly so when you realize that these images are often found on Irish churches. I’d describe the image, but Wikipedia has already done so for me, and so let’s go to their definition:

Sheela na gigs are figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva.

There are around 101 of them in Ireland, although Britain has about half that number, and nobody really knows much more about them. There are competing, often contradictory explanations: That they are surviving representations of a forgotten goddess; that they were meant to ward away evil; that they are representations of the sinfulness of female lust. They may have come with the Normans, or they may have predated the Normans and simply been incorporated into new buildings when the Normans invaded.

My biological mother, Patricia Monaghan, preferred the goddess interpretation, writing of it in her “Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore.” Although she allows that many interpretations are credible, Patricia pointed out that there are per-Christian antecedents to the Sheela na gig, both sculptural and folkloric. Additionally, Patricia pointed out that the Sheela na gig “has been used in recent times as an image of women’s power by feminist artists in Celtic lands.”

It’s a bold aesthetic statement, to the least, but aesthetics, like fortune, favor the bold. So, for the valiant and adventurous, here are a few samples of contemporary artistic and decorative uses of the Sheela na gig.

1. Folk art Sheela na Gig by Kathy Glover

Sheela na Gig linocut by Kathy Glover

 Sheela na Gig is a popular subject for many amateur and folk artists — especially artists who are women. I include this example because it’s one I especially like, by a fellow Minneapolitan named Kathy Glover who passed away a few years ago. The piece is not for sale, but I think it is a superlative example of this sort of art, and so wanted to start with it, because I especially like the fact that this image has become a folk image, one whose meaning is determined by the artist. Glover calls her “The dark one who dispels fear” on the image, offering a new, and possibly very personal, interpretation of the figure.

2. Sheela na Gig pedant by Shakti Studios, $9.98

What’s that around your neck?

Shakti Studios have done a very good job rendering a rather traditional Sheela na gig bas-relief sculpture as a small silvern metal pendant. A good piece of jewelry will invite comment; a great one will invite conversation.

3. Sheela na Gig stamp, $8.50.

I’m ribber and you’re glue; also, I may be a representation of a hag goddess

Haven’t we all had that experience where we are planning to send a letter, but the envelope just seems woefully bare, and we wish we had just the right stamp to add a bit of decoration? Well, problem solved.

4. Sheela na Gig medallion,  $6.58.

This would go handsomely in a winner’s circle.

I expect this is also intended to be worn as a necklace, and it would be a fine one, but I have another suggestion: Replace the cord with colored ribbon and offer this up as an award. For what? Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it? I’m not here to tell you what the Sheela na gig means.

5. Sheela na Gig at Home, Nancy Spero

Just the everyday housework of a sexually explicit ancient image.

I’ll close with an example of visual artist Nancy Spero’s use of the image, an installation called “Sheela na Gig at Home” that was installed at the Jack Tilton Gallery in New York in 1996. The New York Time soffered this short, but delightful, description:

In an installation titled ”Sheela (na-gig) at Home,” repetitive images of Sheela, in hand-printed cutout paper, share a clothesline also hung with various items of women’s underwear. ”I didn’t have a dryer,” the artist explains deadpan in an accompanying video loop.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.