A few years ago, pre lockdown, I took the opportunity to turn off the M4 and track down an astonishing mediaeval sheela na gig sculpture at the church of All Saints at Oaksey, near Cirencester in Wiltshire. The carving, on the outside of the church, is certainly startling; more, the inside of the church – with some remarkable wall paintings – is also worthy of note.
The Oaksey Sheela Na Gig
Sheela na gigs are largely found on Romanesque churches; typically featuring a female figure displaying her genitals to the outside world. Their purpose and origins are obscure, with examples of the motif seen in Ireland, Spain and as far away as India, although it is thought that they were intended to frighten away the devil, or possibly – on church buildings – as a reminder of original sin.
The interesting feature of Oaksey is the church’s age relative to the sheela; it is largely thirteenth century and later. However, it is thought the original church was twelfth century; in this context the sheela was at some point carried over from an earlier building and positioned in its current location to the left of the porch, on the north wall.
The sheela is striking. With pendulous breasts and an exaggerated vagina, she presents a shocking figure; more so, perhaps, than more famous examples such as that at Kilpeck in Herefordshire.
Unlike the Kilpeck example, this sheela appears not to have been part of a corbel table but instead as a statement piece to have been mounted on a wall. Most interesting is that she was clearly moved from the original building and reinstated in the new; her cultural significance appears to have outlasted her Romanesque origins and continued to have meaning within the local community.
The Oaksey St Christopher and Mermaid
If you visit the church to see the sheela, do make the effort to go inside to see the wonderful mediaeval wall painting of St Christopher on the south wall of the nave. I am fortunate to live near a similar painting at Cottered in Hertfordshire; both are intriguing not necessarily for their subject – St Christopher and the Christ Child – but their backgrounds.
Cottered is rightly famous for its portrayal of a mediaeval landscape, a view on a vanished world with buildings, a windmill, fields and people. Oaksey on the other hand has a background of a largely marine nature, remarkable given the village’s inland location.
It seems that at some point this wall painting has been restored (its colours significantly more vibrant than those at Cottered) but this does not deny it its attraction.
I was drawn particularly to the painting of the mermaid with her comb and mirror, and also to a dolphin, fish and a sea serpent over which St Christopher strides bearing the Christ Child. There is also a fisherman with a rod, and a fine catch of fish.
It is difficult to date the wall painting, given the general poor state of St Christopher himself although the Historic England listing suggests early fifteenth century. That at Cottered is later but it could probably be asserted that the Oaksey painting is no later than mid-fifteenth century. Its survival is astonishing and makes a visit to this attractive church well worth the detour from the motorway to savour an extra special part of the British countryside.
The church of All Saints at Oaksey is a fine example of the treasures the casual tourist of the British countryside can find by turning off the beaten track. A window on another world, a joy to behold.
Mermaid and Merman Prints
I have produced two different prints based on mermaids, one featuring the mermaid of Zennor, Cornwall, and the of the Orford Merman, Suffolk. More here:
About the author
Michael Smith read history and later mediaeval literature and languages at the University of York. He is an historian, printmaker and translator of fourteenth century Middle English poetry.
His illustrated translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Unbound in 2018. His translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a poem written during the time of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, published in February 2021. He is currently translating the 14th Century romance William and the Werewolf; if you would like to be a named patron of this book, please click here.