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IMAGES OF LUST - Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches

By Anthony Weir and James Jerman, published by Routledge at £16.99. 166pp. Pbk. ISBN: 0-415-15156-2 (Reviewed by David Taylor)

How many of us have stood in wonder at those curious carvings encountered in those old churches we may occasionally visit on a Sunday afternoon? How many of us have actually thought about what these carvings depict?

It has been all too easy in the past to see carvings of Sheela-na-gigs and other female exhibitionists as evidence of a pre-Christian religion. Popularist books on neo-paganism, the Celts, druids and just about anything else vaguely pagan over the past few years have all perpetuated the idea of Sheelas as goddesses and green men as gods of fertility. But if indeed they are, what are they doing on Christian churches? Many ridiculous explanations have been offered in the past, including stone-masons with a secret pagan agenda and a Church willing to turn a blind eye.

If, for a moment, we turn our backs on this rose-tinted view of the past, it is easy to see that in this book Weir and Jarman examine these medieval carvings through medieval eyes. Sheela-na-gigs are seen for what they really are - ugly, grotesque women exposing themselves for all to see. Forget neo-pagan crap about hag goddesses; Weir and Jarman make it clear that these (and other) carvings must be looked at in a Christian medieval context to be fully understood. In effect, they convincingly argue that these sexual carvings, these sheelas, mega-phalli, green men, tongue-pokers, beard pullers, anus-exposers etc are sermons in stone - messages and warnings to the illiterate medieval masses about the Church's obssesion with the sins of the flesh.

This book is a milestone in our understanding of archaic church carvings on a par with John Billingsley's brilliant Stoney Gaze. If you have ever stood in a cold, dark church and marvelled at these carvings, then this book is an absolute must and an essential addition to your bookshelf.