Naughty Women, Leafy Men And Shameful Anti-Semitism: Church Art The Church Would Rather Forget

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Historic European churches and cathedrals are high on many travelers’ to-see lists. People admire the soaring vaulted ceilings and richly colored stained glass windows. Look closer, though, and you’ll see things you weren’t expecting.

Like this lovely lady at the Romanesque church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England, shown here courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Yes, she’s doing exactly what it looks like she’s doing. And she’s not the only one. Sculptures of naked ladies spreading it for all to see decorate numerous churches. Most are in Ireland and smaller numbers can be found in England and continental Europe.

They’re called Sheela-na-gigs and nobody has any idea what they mean. It’s uncertain when they were made as the churches they’re found on date from several centuries and some Sheela-na-gigs appear to have been reused from earlier buildings.

So why were they put in churches? Some people like to see them as pagan survivals, although that fails to explain why church authorities would permit them in churches. A bit of support for this comes from the Royal Navy, of all things. An 18th century Navy ship was named Sheela-na-gig and in the ship’s listing the name is explained as a “female sprite.” Other researchers think they’re symbols of the sinful nature of women. While this is possible, it fails to explain why the women aren’t being shown in Hell or being punished by devils, as is typical of didactic church art.

%Gallery-167773%Another mystery is the Green Man. This is a face surrounded by leaves and buds. Sometimes greenery is coming out of the Green Man’s mouth. At first glance it appears to be a very pagan symbol. Indeed, a similar type of leafy face was common in Roman art but died out when Classical art died. The Green Man reappeared in church art in the 11th century. He became hugely popular in Victorian Britain, which celebrated both nature and Classical art.

Once again, we’re stuck for an explanation. Pagan symbol or co-opted Classical decoration? Perhaps a fertility symbol celebrating the abundance of spring in what was still a predominantly agricultural society? Like with the Sheela-na-gigs, the Church didn’t leave records as to why they appear in a religious building.

The motive behind another odd bit of church art is all too clear – the Judensau, or “Jew’s sow.” In this scene a large sow is being suckled by a number of Jews, identifiable by the conical hats they were forced by law to wear. Another Jew is shown lifting up the sow’s tail to lick its rear. Often a Semitic-looking Devil stands by watching in approval. This disgusting bit of anti-Semitism first appeared in medieval Germany and remained a popular church “decoration” for several hundred years. The image seems to be limited to German-speaking areas and is found on churches and cathedrals and occasionally secular buildings.

The Stadtkirche in Wittenberg has a famous example on the exterior wall, clearly visible from the street. Martin Luther mentioned it in one of his anti-Semitic writings: “Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras.” In the last line, Luther is talking about the Hebrew term for the ineffable name of God, thus insulting their beliefs as well as their dignity.

In modern times a memorial plaque was put beneath it acknowledging that six million Jews were killed “under the sign of the Cross.”

Top five best castles of Yorkshire


Yorkshire has always been a troubled region of England. It was on the front line of fighting between the English and the Scots and saw lots of action in the English Civil War, when the forces of Parliament under Oliver Cromwell fought the Royalists supporting King Charles I. Because of this, many castles dot the landscape, including some of the most magnificent the country has to offer. Here are five of the best.

York Castle
Dominating the skyline of the city of York is this unusual fortification, often referred to as Clifford’s Tower. The first fort here was built by the Normans in 1068 and was a motte-and-bailey castle. A wooden stockade and tower sat atop a large artificial mound. Around the base of the mound was another enclosure protected by a moat and wooden stockade. Motte-and-bailey castles were cheap and quick to build and provided sufficient protection against the rather basic siege techniques of the time. The Normans threw up hundreds of these in the years immediately following their conquest of England.

In 1190 the castle sheltered the city’s Jewish population during an antisemitic riot started by a man who owed money to a Jewish moneylender and didn’t feel like paying it back. The castle warden let the Jews hide there, but when he went out to talk to the mob the Jews wouldn’t let him back in, fearing the townsmen would swarm in with him. The warden lost patience and called out the militia, which besieged the castle. The tower caught fire and the Jews committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the mob. About 500 people died.

Like many motte-and-bailey castles, the wooden tower was eventually replaced with stone, in this case an odd design of four semicircles. The rounded walls helped deflect shots from catapults and in 1644 proved useful against cannon too. Local Royalist forces held out against a Parliamentarian army for several weeks before finally surrendering when it became apparent that no help was coming.

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Raby Castle
Unlike most English castles, this one’s still lived in. It’s been the residence of the Lord Barnard since 1626 but actually was built by the Neville family in the 14th century. In 1569, seven hundred knights gathered in the great hall to plot the overthrow of Queen Elizabeth I and install a Catholic monarch. The Rising of the North, as it was called, was quickly crushed, and many of its leaders executed. The Neville family saw their castle and lands confiscated and the property was eventually transferred to the Barnard dynasty.

While this imposing castle and its beautiful grounds are private property, it is still possible to visit Raby Castle at certain times of the year. The rooms have decorations from various periods and include many fine works of art from famous artists such as Teniers the Younger and Van Dyck. Make sure to take a stroll in the 200 acre deer park, with its own herds of deer that have been grazing here since Norman times.

Raby Castle is actually in County Durham, but it’s a quick drive from York and too good to miss.

Bolton Castle
Less grandiose than Raby Castle, the castle at Bolton is more geared towards defense. Finished in 1399, it looks like a solid block of stone with four square towers. While the walls were good for keeping people out, they were also good for keeping people in. Elizabeth I kept her Catholic rival Mary Queen of Scots here as a prisoner.

During the English Civil War the owner of the castle supported the king. Most of Yorkshire was Royalist, like the city of York itself, so the region became a prime target for the armies of Parliament. A Parliamentary force besieged the castle but, despite having artillery, weren’t able to take it. The defenders held out for a year and only gave up in 1645 after running out of food. The scars from the cannonballs can still be seen.

Skipton Castle
Another strong fortress is Skipton Castle. Like York and Bolton castles, it also withstood a siege during the English Civil War, but this time for three years. Looking at it you can see why. It started out in 1090 as a motte-and-bailey, but soon developed into a massive stone stronghold. So massive, in fact, that nobody dared attack it until those pesky Parliamentarians decided to try their luck in 1643. Not even cannons could break the walls and three years later the Royalist garrison was still holding out. All other Royalist resistance in Yorkshire had crumbled and the defenders finally agreed to an honorable surrender.

Despite its ill treatment at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s men, Skipton Castle remains one of the best preserved castles in England. The fabulous gatehouse, towers, and Tudor-era courtyard really give a feel for what it was like in the not-so-good old days. It’s all very impressive, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck there for three years!

Ripley Castle
Like Raby Castle, Ripley Castle is a private residence but open to the public. This stately home been in the Ingilby family since it was built in 1309. It’s amazing they managed to hold onto it considering they remained committed Catholics when England became Protestant. One Ingilby was executed in 1586 for inciting a Catholic rebellion. Other members of the family were important members in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, who persecuted Catholics. The family played a very dangerous political game but they were good at it. They even had a secret room for their priest to hide in so nobody knew they were still keeping the old faith. They also had a hand in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up James I and all of Parliament and make England Catholic again. Even after the plot failed and Guy Fawkes was executed they still managed to wriggle their way out of trouble and keep their castle.

Ripley Castle is famous for its beautiful gardens and deer park as well as its historic interior. You’ll see a room that used to be a British navy ship, a sumptuous dining room, and take in sweeping views of the countryside from the drawing room. The library is much as it was when Jane Ingilby held Oliver Cromwell at gunpoint and took him prisoner. Cromwell escaped, of course, yet despite him leading the Parliamentary forces to victory and taking power, the family still kept their castle!