Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches by Anthony Weir and James Jerman (Batsford, £17.50).
THE sculptures discussed in this book were executed mostly on
the outside of Romanesque churches between 1080 and 1250 in Britain and Ireland, western France and the north of Spain.
There are several different types, from the so-called "sheela-na gig", the female sexual exhibitionist found in Ireland, to male megaphallic exhibitionists and copulating couples.
Alongside these obviously sexual sculptures the authors treat others — contortionist acrobats, women with long hair, hybrid monsters, apes, tongue protruders and the like — which although only rarely appearing as exhibitionists, usually had, it is argued, an implicit sexual reference.
Some past writers have considered Ireland to be the
birthplace of these obscene productions and have seen them as vestige' idols of an ancient pre-Christian fertility religion taken over by the Church, but still serving a superstitious purpose. The authors dispute this interpretation, seeing them instead as deliberately shocking and repulsive images intended to lend visual support to the morality of church teaching concerning sexual mores and salvation, a graphic portrayal of the evil of lust, connected to the many artistic visions of the Day of Judgment.
In a church still dominated by the monastic ideal of celibacy, these carvings, it is claimed, formed part of the battle of the virtues and vices, warning, with scenes in which naked human beings are tormented by snakes and devils, of the punishments of hell awaiting those who succumbed to the desires of the flesh.
The authors believe that these motifs, far from having pagan Celtic origins, were aimed specifically at pilgrims, who would have understood their meaning, and were transmitted along the pilgrim routes to and from the great shrine of Santiago da Compostela.
This is a serious book aimed at the general reader. It presents detailed information concerning the distribution of the various subjects, although this means that too often the reader is faced with long lists of examples in the text. It is profusely illustrated, but in many cases with drawings rather than photographs.
This is significant, since the reason for it probably lies in the inaccessibility of many of the examples. Appearing mostly on corbels but also on capitals and portals. many are difficult to see and some are entirely hidden.
Although the authors are by no means the first to point out the didactic purpose of much medieval church decoration, they go further than most art historians would dare in asserting the moralising intention of the inventive fantasies that accompany the depiction of Biblical and Apocryphal narrative scenes and figures of saints.
It is a big jump from the fact that a mason would hardly have been likely to carve something to which his clerical or noble patron might object, to the statement that every grotesque mask with its tongue sticking out was intended to further the teachings of the Church in a specific sense. And it is unwise to be dogmatic in ruling out alternative interpretations.
Anthropologists have discovered many examples of the Church's adoption of fertility rites, and the Biblical preoccupation with fertility and barrenness is revealed in many key stories.
The book raises important issues in the wider context of medieval art, about artists and their patrons, religious beliefs, the purposes of art, and its transmission. But there is little contemporary evidence for the way in which art was created or understood. Many unanswered questions remain. Why do these carvings appear for the most part on rural parish churches and not on more important foundations? Why did they spread to some areas and not to others? The book is full of good ideas, but they remain S peculative.
And there is some important evidence against the speculations put forward here. In medieval scenes of the Fall, where there was a moralising point to be made which also formed an integral part of the Biblical narrative, artists usually distorted the human body to avoid depicting the genitals at all. And the most famous contemporary "critic" of medieval art, the strict Cisterican monk St Bernard of Clairvaux, in a famous tirade, does not appear to connect these grotesques with the art purposefully produced to teach people: "to what purpose these ridiculous monstrosities, these weird deformed beauties and these beautiful deformities . . what are the filthy apes doing in these cloisters?"
The reviewer is researching a thesis at London's Courtauld institute on illustrated saints' lives.