Kilpeck’s bellcote reminded me of the first church we had visited, where our adventures had begun, though this one is a nineteenth century addition, carved and decorated in keeping with the rest of the building; restorations have been gentle here. But it was a small carving we had mainly come to see, one of the corbels… and probably one of the most famous and photographed corbels on any church. But first, we had to find it. You wouldn’t think that finding a corbel would be all that difficult… they support the roof, so you know where to look… but…
…where on earth do you start with the corbels at Kilpeck church? Like the fabulous door, they have survived almost entirely intact. Originally, there were ninety-one of them, holding up the carved and decorated eaves of the roof. Now there are fewer… a ‘mere’ eighty-four survive after nearly nine hundred years. Plus the heads that flank the windows. And the great dragons or serpents that watch over the west end of the church. And… well, it just goes on and on…
If we needed any reminder of how much of the visual language of such carvings we have lost over the centuries, Kilpeck would do the trick. There are birds, fish and beasts… an entire bestiary of them… but closer inspection reveals they are not all quite what they first appear to be. Many of the designs seem to contain human heads.
Others look surprisingly modern…
Others are very strange, with figures clasped in their mouths.
You could spend a lifetime just studying these carvings.
The corbel that had made us decide to visit Kilpeck was the famous Sheela na gig. This enigmatic figure is found on many ancient churches and castles throughout France, Britain and Ireland. Nothing is known about her for certain although many books and theories have been put forward. Some regard her merely as a warning against the sin of carnal desire, others see her as a representation of the mother goddess. One theory suggests she guards against the evil eye and protects against demons. Others refer to the liminal nature of the gates of birth while some see her as little more than a fertility symbol and in some areas, there is a tradition that the figures were shown to brides.
Perhaps, as most church sources suggest, they were just a warning… a moral compass with a threat of punishment, but I think there is more to it than that. I am reminded of the ancient Greek story of Demeter and Persephone, when the mother, grieving for her lost daughter, abducted and carried away to the Underworld, met an old crone. When all else had failed to cheer the broken-hearted mother, the crone, Baubo, lifted her skirts, exposing her genitals… at which Demeter burst out laughing and was restored. A similar tale was told in ancient Egypt where Ra, the All-Father was depressed and shut himself away during the contending of Horus and Set for the throne of Osiris. The goddess Hathor exposed herself before him, making him laugh and shake off his depression in order to resolve the conflict between the younger gods.
We will probably never know for certain what this, or many of the figures once meant to those who carved them or those who looked up to ‘read’ them.For myself, I wonder if we don’t over-think these things sometimes. That there was a symbolic language is beyond doubt… but would the ordinary serf have been privy to all its nuances? Maybe the answers lie not in academia, but in our own human reactions to these images.
Given that they decorate a church, a holy place, some may well be reinforcing the idea that sinning against the rules of the Church will be punished in unimaginable ways… but maybe, just maybe, they are reminding us too that love, laughter, joy and the human life we live stem from the same source and should also be held sacred.