Celtic art, £8.99
11th-13th century AD
From Chloran, County Meath, Ireland
Sheela-na Gig is probably a corrupt version of the Irish meaning 'old hag of the breasts' or 'of the hunkers', referring to the figure's typical pose with bent legs. Over one hundred figures like this one have been recorded in Ireland and over forty in Britain. They are commonly set above doorways and arches, sometimes on castles but mostly on Christian churches and monastic buildings. The size, style and quality of carving are variable but the pose and display of genitalia unmistakable.
The ancient meaning or function of these figures is not well understood. They are usually interpreted as protective images, or as reminders of the grossness of lust. More benign subjects, placed in obscure corners, might have been intended to aid fertility. Their survival through centuries of reform and enlightenment is remarkable and suggests considerable local attachment to these powerful images for undocumented reasons. From the sixteenth century there are many records of destruction or orders to do so and several carvings have been reused as building material.