The Silent Orgy
"...and all but Lust will turn to dust in Humanity's Machine." - Oscar Wilde: The Ballad of Reading Gaol==


exhibitionist carvings
on mediæval churches





female exhibitionists:
the sheela-na-gig conundrum




the column-swallower


in the silent orgy




images of Luxuria


& the phallic continuum


field guide
to megalithic ireland


irish sweathouses


the earth-mother's


"images of lust"


beasts and monsters of the mediæval bestiaries








the glass phallus






South Doorway, Lincoln Cathedral





Click to see the carved front of a Romanesque church in Saintonge
(Western France)










Jones, Malcolm

THE SECRET MIDDLE AGES: discovering the real medieval world

Stroud, England:
Sutton Publishing, 2002

(especially the chapter entitled Wicked Willies with Wings: sex and sexuality in late medieval art and thought).

It may be ordered
at a discount through:

and outside the British Isles through



Cooke, Ian McNeil

"SAINT PRIAPUS" an account of phallic survivals within the Christian church and some of their pagan origins.

Penzance, England:
Men-an-Tol Studio, 2002
(available only from the author)



Kenaan-Kedar, Nurith

towards the deciphering of an enigmatic pictorial language

Aldershot, Hants., England:
Scolar Press.
Brookfield, Vermont, USA: Ashgate Publishing Co.

ISBN 1-85928-109-5

It may be ordered
at a discount through:

and outside the British Isles through

This book, however, regards subjects such as exhibitionists and mouth-pullers as marginal - which, being on several doorways and interior capitals, they surely are not.

Part of the scanned text is included in the





Bosch detail






male figures: part III

The earliest male exhibitionist in a Christian context occurs in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript
from the 8th century.

Read about medieval attitudes to sex,

Vatican MS Barberini, Lat.570, detail

A squatting naked man points to his genitals which are being bitten by snakes that represent both the temptation and the hellish punishment for yielding to it. Snakes also attack his hair and his moustaches while he pulls his beard - his secondary sexual characteristics. The motif of a human being threatened or punished by beasts or monsters, frequent in Romanesque art, also occurs on Irish sculptured crosses.

Compare the manuscript illustration above with a carving on the cathedral at Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales), which is also of a monk, smiling as he is sliding into the maw of a remarkable beast whose tail coils back to its head in a double helix.

click to enlarge and rotate.


The Barberini illustration can also be compared with a (slightly-earlier ?) AngloSaxon metal strap-end:

from Thomas, Gabor (2000). A Survey of Late Anglo-Saxon and Viking-Age Strap-Ends from Britain.

One of the inherent problems with early Christian attitudes to sex was the concept of 'brotherly love', the pairing of monks in 'spiritual marriage' as eulogised by the 12th Century, Abbot (later Saint) Ælred of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, whose spiritual and close relationship with a monk called Simon slightly pre-dated the famous heterosexual liaison of Abelard and Eloïse and harked back to the "marriage of true minds": the Sacred Union of two holy males in Brotherly Love ('philadelphia') practised by uninstitutionalised early Christian monks in the Middle East and, later, in Ireland. (See Boswell, John: THE MARRIAGE OF LIKENESS - SAME-SEX UNIONS IN PRE-MODERN EUROPE, HarperCollins 1996)

This holy and passionate, mystical male companionship is also a strong element in Sh'ia Islam, where perhaps the most famous is that between the celebrated Afghan poet (and founder of the Mevlevi Order) Jalaluddin Rumi and his spiritual master Shams-i-Tabrizi.

Such close companionship in a single-sex monastic environment where chastity was considered a prime virtue must inevitably have led to physical unions along a spectrum ranging from hugging to mutual masturbation by frottage - and perhaps to unrecorded extremes. This corbel at Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Corrèze) seems to show a pair of monks sharing a single penis.

click the picture for more corbels at Beaulieu

...while at Vinax (Charente-Maritime) they are passionately kissing.

click the picture to enlarge

A large proportion of monks came into monasteries via "child oblation" : the donation of unwanted or superfluous male children to a monastery before or during puberty as a pious interpretation of Jesus' request: "Let the little children come unto me !" codified by St Benedict himself.

Benedictine monasteries always included a younger generation, whether its youngest were aged five, as in the early centuries, or from twelve to fifteen, from the mid-10th century on. What Peter Damian fulminated against in his 11th century Book of Gomorrah was not only innocent sexual exploration between boys or youths of the same age, but what he considered to be the worst of all possible clerical sins, the corruption of 'spiritual sons' by ecclesiastical 'fathers'.

Unwanted or unloved girls, of course, were automatically sent to nunneries of various kinds. What they did behind their often impenetrable walls was of little interest to the patriarchy.

Oblation, despite modern sensibilities, might well have been the most humane form of child-abandonment ever devised in the West.
Think of the children who spent their entire lives in Victorian institutions because they were 'defective' in some way.
Remember also the women "fallen into sin" who spent their lives as slaves in Catholic institutions all over the world,
having been forced to give up their children, sometimes as sex-slaves to very rich perverts.

The danger of what we now call 'homosexual acts' must have been ever-present just as it is in any same-sex institution, especially within the Roman Catholic church which even today displays duplicitous ambivalence in its attitude towards the behaviour (and 'sexual orientation') of priests who are not even confined to the monastic situation. So it is not surprising that the monk in the Anglo-Saxon manuscript points to large genitals to warn against the pitfall of sexual activity (and jealousy) within the monastery: the penis is best considered as a seductive foreign country to which one travels at one's peril. So, while Jesus could appear as a male nude on two late Classical mosaics in Ravenna depicting his baptism, the naked male very gradually came to be viewed, after the establishment of St Benedict's Rule a couple of centuries later, as a symbol of dire temptation - increasingly as the Benedictine monasteries multiplied. Benedictine monks may well have pre-empted or influenced Thomas Aquinas' teaching that masturbation was a worse sin than rape, incest, and adultery (because in these other sins procreation is a possibility). Already in the 11th century, Pope Leo IX (1049-54) had forbidden masturbators (reputed or self-confessed) to be admitted to sacred orders.

In the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales (Gérald de Barri) reports a case of onanism by a monk referred to the Bishop of Le Mans. Every time the brother tried to pray, 'an evil spirit places its hands on his genital organs and does not stop...until he is polluted by an emission of semen.'

In pre-Romanesque times, however, Christ Exhibitionist (but not erect) seems not to have been an unusual motif - as this Merovingian tile from Auvergne demonstrates.

click for a description

When exhibitionist figures feature on Romanesque capitals (rather than corbels), they are usually associated with devouring monsters, tormenting devils, or tempters. Another English example can be found on a lintel which has been re-erected on a church in Shropshire - a lintel in the Anglo-Saxon (rather than a French) style, which shows a damaged exhibitionist female (with coiffure or headdress) together with a very Irish or Pictish theriomorphic figure.

photo by John Harding

Bredwardine (Shropshire)
click for larger pictures

In Romanesque art women's hair (or elaborate head-dress) usually symbolises luxury and sensuality, while men's beards/moustaches often symbolise testosteronic sinfulness. A twelfth-century Spanish carving depicts a bicorporeal man each of whose bodies tugs at his beard.

Click for a high-resolution enlargement. click to enlarge

Sant Joan de les Abadesses (Girona), Spain

This is a variant of the motif of mutual beard-pullers which originally symbolised strife and discord between males, though also seems to have come to symbolise 'unnatural' affection. ( Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, however, quaintly regards beard-pulling as symbolic of the sin of Despair. Another curious interpretation is that it represents the 'bridling' or determined control of lust rather than its outlet.) A fine example of mutual beard-pullers symbolising strife is preserved in Poitiers.

Just as at a later period Raphael borrowed a Michelangelo Christ to depict a killer in his Massacre of the Innocents; as Caravaggio in his last canvas used his own face as that of Goliath beheaded by an untriumphant David; as Bacon borrowed from and referred to Velásquez for his Screaming Pope series, so Romanesque sculptors mixed and matched themes, ideas and each other's and Classical (and drawings of Classical) works. It is therefore not so surprising that the theme of two mean pulling each other's beard would start out as Discord and Strife but would soon transmute into a symbol of monastic mutual masturbation.

Elsewhere in Spain there are masturbating beard-pullers at the church of SS Cosmo & Damian at Bárcena de Pie de Concha (Santander), and at the collegiate church of San Martín de Elines in the same province. At Bárcena de Pie de Concha there is also a masturbating female exhibitionist.

click for another view

Elines (Santander), Spain

A remarkable variation on bicorporeality can be seen on a corbel at Saint-Médard-de-Guizières (Gironde)
where two adossed men share a single penis.

click for more


Slightly earlier than the Anglo-Saxon manuscript, the Irish Book of Kells shows a warrior with spear displaying his virility - but as a vignette, without any evident censure.

detail of folio 200r

Also from Ireland, though carved in the 12th century is a remarkable grotesque from a Round Tower, showing a contorted figure with huge and very Norse-Irish head displaying buttocks and what can be interpreted either as dangling labia or scrotum - most likely the latter.
Two monsters bite its outstretched arms - which issue from its head.

click to enlarge

Berrymount (Cavan), Ireland
compare with a corbel at Grey Abbey

That this remarkable sculpture is a window-top and not a corbel somewhat discredits the idea that corbel-carvings are 'marginal' art, being neither 'high'/'official' nor 'popular'. The fact that just one or two of the corbel-motifs (buttock-barers especially) migrate to misericords and roof-bosses does not detract from the Christian seriousness of the original motifs.

Click for another photo

Carving on roof-beam, Queniborough, Leicestershire:
compare with an even more amazing beam-carving at Claybrooke Parva in the same county.

There is no shortage of exhibitionist and related subjects on internal capitals and on doorways. And there is no end to the variety and variations of the male exhibitionist motif. As we have seen in two of the four Romanesque/Gothic churches in Poitiers, they are not necessarily grotesque . This Czech figure would almost qualify for inclusion in a gay magazine.

Capital in Chapel-Palatine, Cheb (Bohemia), Czech Republic.

Devils, of course, are often depicted with huge genitals - propaganda which might occasionally have been counter-productive.

click for details
click for more

Two views of a high frieze at Villers-Saint-Paul (Oise), France:
the devil at the bottom is carrying a phallic money-bag.
The couple to the left are probably homosexual,
like some at Cervatos in Northern Spain (see below).

click to see another French church with corbels and frieze

Click to enlarge this photo by Joel Jalladeau

More human than devilish: Celle-Guenand (Indre-et-Loire)

One iconographic source for megaphallic devils might be images of Mithraic, Celtic or Romano-Celtic deities - such as a teddybearish figure, now in a museum in Durham, found at a 2nd-4th century Roman fort at Bremenium (High Rochester) in Northumberland,

Figure from Bremenium Roman fort.

displaying small horns (or rabbit-ears), carefully-delineated nipples, and a large, thick penis.

On the other hand, a 12th century 'Christian' capital at Porcheresse (Charente) is far more surprising. It features a phallusless Cernunnos (celebrated by place-names beginning with Bel- in SW France) and a tongue-sticking female exhibitionist. What is one to make of it ?

click to enlarge

Another source for megaphallism is the Feast of Fools, deriving from the Roman Saturnalia and Kalends of January, and widely celebrated until the puritanical imperative of protestantism. This was the period when the established order was reversed, Roman slaves dressed as their masters and (ritually) ordered them about. Festivities included raucus fancy-dress parades (rather like some Carnival or Gay Pride parades today) which included huge penises strapped onto dwarves and so on.

photo by Julianna Lees

Saint-Georges-de-Montagne (Gironde):
in this scene the man (on the right) seems to be carrying a huge phallus,
while the crudely-exhibitionist woman is holding something up, possibly a mask or an animal head.
It is thus a kind of moralistic lampoon.

Despite appearances, the corbel belows illustrates no carnal sin, but a clothed couple embracing, each with a halo,
and the woman's left hand holding the man's thigh (not his penis)

click for another

Maillezais (Vendée), France

This could refer to St Augustine's only justification for the sexual union and marriage of Christians: in order for two saved souls to create another soul that is likely to be saved -thus an encouragement of sexual unions of the pure, as with the following tender couples:

photo by Frank Horvat

Marignac (Charente-Maritime), France

Cénac (Dordogne)

Perse (Aveyron)

Compare the above with the fornicating couple on a rustic French capital,

Click for more at Monbos

Monbos (Dordogne), France

or a frankly obscene couple at Santillana del Mar near Santander in Northern Spain.

In the picture below, the male has been smashed, probably by post-mediæval re-roofers: during modern re-roofing the corbel-table was cleaned):

click for a Spanish pair

Manéglise (Seine-Maritime), France

Sometimes one or both of a pair is an acrobat.

More from Northern Spain ->

Cervatos (Palencia), Spain

Some embracing couples are almost certainly male.

Vérac (Gironde), France

Mosnac (Charente-Maritime)

Others are more ambiguous.

Puynormand (Gironde)

Such huggers may well be based on one or other of the several Roman sculptures of the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian, who ruled the Western and Eastern empires respectively, and who may have been mistaken for male lovers by fanatics ignorant of the subject.

For other huggers see the pages on Saint-Contest and Studland.

On the other hand, there is the strange ecstatic description by the Benedictine theologian, Rupert of Deutz (c.1075-1129), of his VISION OF JESUS ON THE CROSS:

“I wanted to touch him with my hands, embrace him, kiss him...
I sensed that he wanted me to hold him, embrace him, kiss him for a long time.
I sensed how seriously he accepted these love-kisses when, while kissing,
he himself opened his mouth so that I might kiss him more deeply.”

Nevertheless, the extreme interpretation of the sin of Sodomy (embracing, in any full survey of mediæval contexts, not only sexual love between men but inhospitality to strangers, intercourse with animals, ordinary masturbation, sex between men and women when they do not mean to make a baby, even sex between men and women with the woman on top - but now usually taken to be anal penetration) is a rare subject in Romanesque (and any other) sculpture: I know of only a few examples - all male-in-male, a rare practice (though a common calumny) until recently. There is at least one at the collegiate church of Cervatos - where two corbels resemble exotic illustrations to the Kama Sutra. These illustrations of Buggery perhaps represent a slur - on the Bougres (Bulgars) or Cathars, part of whose origins were in what is now known as Bulgaria.

click for more

Cervatos (Palencia), Spain

Another is on the celebrated Last Judgement tympanum of the Pilgrimage church of Conques, where a devil with a club sodomises a sodomite (or, more precisely, buggers a bugger) into the beastly jaws of Hell. (The Jaws of Hell are yet another Christian borrowing from Classical mythology: Virgil's "Jaws of Tænarus", the "High Portals of Dis" which are echoed - and challenged - by the high portals of salvation which are the churches of stone.)

Conques (Aveyron), France
click for a high-resolution enlargement

On the well-known frieze of Lincoln cathedral the two sodomites are are attacked by fantastic snakes while a devil pulls them by the hair. To their left a naked Avaritia and another pair of sinning males are similarly attacked by demons and snakes.

compare with a Mithraic altar in Bordeaux

Lincoln, England

click for more

In another example, the sodomy is portrayed as occurring in the daily lives of travelling entertainers, anathematised by the mediæval Church. The penetrator is a monkey, as also perhaps the acrobat.

La Chaize-le-Vicomte (Vendée), France

At Sémelay (Nièvre) both males are human, while a remarkable capital at Vézelay portrays the rape of a clothed and un-erotic Ganymede by Zeus (in the form of an eagle astride a wolf) as described by Virgil - except that a typically toothy Romanesque demon pulls his mouth and sticks out his tongue 'off-stage' to indicate a serious carnal sin to the viewers below. This capital has been much discussed, and an excellent article on it, and the relations between older and younger monks, by V.A. Kolve can be read here.

Perhaps the most remarkable illustration of male anal penetration is on a doorway capital of the rural Rouergat church of Verlac. One devil sodomises another whose scrotum is in the jaws of a wolf. This represents not the earthly deed, but the goings-on in Hell - which, no doubt, many might secretly look forward to.

Click to see an ithyphallic wolf
photo by Jacques Martin

Verlac (Aveyron), France

A capital at Conzac (Charente) more discreetly and decoratively suggests mutual fellatio in its use of rinceaux (abstract tendrils of foliage), emanating from mouths and passing between legs (or vice versa) in a manner redolent of a rite of Spring. In the Penitentials and later ecclesiastical legislation, Sodomy is a fluid and wide-ranging sin (or a portmanteau of sins) comprising a varying number of non-reproductive 'erotic acts' and tender behaviour performed (usually by men), alone, in couples and in groups, and in varying degrees of iniquity.

Slightly less rare - and with no ambiguity at all - is the motif of disembodied male organs,which were carved to show the source of carnal sin, rather than any celebration of sexuality - though of course the sculptors might well have enjoyed the execution of the motif, and the illiterate peasantry might well have enjoyed the results of their craft.

Corbel, Sainte-Colombe (Charente), France
click for a post-Romanesque Irish example...
...and for another Western French example at Loupiac (Gironde).

Nevertheless, it is surely no coincidence that the biggest concentration of Romanesque carvings of wealth/luxury/sin motifs occurs in Western France - mainly Aquitaine. This is precisely the area where the Romantic-Chivalric Troubadour fantasies of 'Courtly' Love were fostered and purveyed. It seems to me that the Benedictines and Augustinians were pointing out that the Romances were perversions as much as were homosexual acts, deceptions by Satan : Sex is Sex, but Love belongs to God.

The survival of such corbels to the present day is remarkable, given their vulnerability to puritan attack. Figures whose genitals have been smashed are surprisingly uncommon, given their accessibility, religious wars, and the violence of iconoclasts and misguided prudes. A dramatic French example can be seen on an internal capital of the parish church at Bommiers (Indre).

In a recent book, Pierre-Louis Giannerini has tried to show that many 'erotic' Romanesque carvings were commissioned to encourage sex and procreation in depopulated areas such as Northern Spain, devastated by the Christian holocaust-cum-landgrab known as the Reconquistà. The carvings of disembodied phalluses and enthusiastically-coupling couples might lend credence to this theory (first advanced by Ángel del Olmo García in 1999) if it were not that the highest concentration of exhibitionist carvings is in Aquitaine, and that they so often occur with images of drunkenness, usury, other forms of sinfulness, and buffoonery. Giannerini cites Cervatos frequently in his book, without once mentioning that it is a collegiate church for the instruction of novice monks, few of whom were likely to go out and re-populate Northern Spain with Good Christian sperm! But it is certainly possible that some of these carvings - like some sheela-na-gigs - were resorted to at a later date as magical aids to fertility, and that the motif might have been adapted in parts of Northern Spain in a striking example of Jungian enantiodromia to encourage reconquistadores and even seminarians to inseminate as many hapless women as possible.

A little less rare than the phallus-motif is the variant of the very common 'tonguesticker' whose tongue is long enough to reach his genitals; this motif is not quite the same as the genital-licker or -sucker illustrated on the previous page. The example at Mere in England combines several sinful motifs: the acrobat, the anal exhibitionist, the monster - and possibly even the vagina dentata, a feature of some Irish female exhibitionists.

photo by John Harding

Interior corbel at Mere (Wiltshire)
photo by John Harding

Less rare again is the ithyphallic spinarius or thornpuller, attempting to extract St Paul's "thorn in the flesh" generally thought to be sexual desire. These are inspired by (but bear little resemblance to) a Roman bronze of a naked boy-athlete notorious in mediæval times.

Click for a high-resolution enlargement.

Saint-Léger-en-Pons (Charente), France
click for a high-resolution enlargement

By contrast, here are three clay vessels from Roman times which are completely different both in function and message...

click for more
click for more

...and Roman images in stone which proclaim a piety
which monotheisms have never tolerated

click for more

Stone at Chesters Roman Fort (Northumberland)
photographed by Tina Negus

Vulvular phallus recently found at Raglan (Monmouthshire)
photographed by John Harding

...and one of many phallic statues which were widespread in pre-Christian Europe - this one from a once-remote island in a remote lake in Ireland.

Male side of back-to back double figure, Caldragh graveyard,
county Fermanagh - compared with a Gallo-Roman herm.


photo by Mark Gredler

A tiny bronze Roman amulet of a kind which could well have been carried
by stonemasons of the 11th and 12th centuries.

From Roman times also ex voto statuettes in clay, bronze etc. (the doubtless far more common wooden and waxen ones have inevitably disappeared) were offered at healing-shrines to cure sexual malformation or dysfunction. These, like Baubo figurines must have been produced in large numbers. In the 15th century, Thomas More reported that at the shrine of St Valéry in Picardy the walls were hung about with "none other thynge but mennes gere and womens gere made in waxe" (i.e wax models of penises and vulvas).

Much more grand, and erected at the end of the 14th century to commemorate the diuretic qualities of the local water of the wild crags of the Monts de Lacaune since Roman times, this fountain - La Fount dels Pissaïres - at Lacaune-les-Bains (Tarn) is a remarkable testimony to mediæval attitudes - with an antique flavour.

photo from the Lacaune-les-Bains website

A more Romanesque fountain, though from the 16th century, much farther East at Forcalquier (Alpes de Haute-Provence), is, however, richer in symbolism, more ambiguous - and enigmatic.

click for more pictures


A small figure in lead from late-mediæval times
showing a woman riding a Roman phallic tintinnabulum.

click to see a Roman tintinnabulum

In the centre of the mosaic floor of Milan's prestigious Galleria shopping-arcade is a white bull rampant representing the city of Turin. It is still a ritual observed by many to tread deliberately on the bull's genitals - in order to avert the Evil Eye. Thus the mosaic is badly defaced.

Many fine sarcophagi survive from Roman times, depicting gods, demi-gods, winged-victories, centaurs and other mythical beasts.
This one (in the Michelangelo Courtyard in Rome) features a centaur (with two sets of genitals) being groped by a youth holding a lyre.

click to see more


For a book-length discussion on the survival of Roman antiquities see Michael Greenhalgh's
Professor Greenhalgh has expressed the view that this website
(and, presumably, Romanesquecorbel-tables, etc.) is mere "smut"!

A hairy (and of course bearded) Greek Satyr with fantastic cock and balls.
The hairy pelt suggests a link with bear-totemism, once widespread in Europe.

Until 2007 I had thought that there were no post-Romanesque exhibitionists in France apart from a female at Cleyrac (which might even be Romanesque, though it doesn't look it), and a pair at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val on a 16th century window. However, my colleague Jacques Martin sent me a photograph of a very fine male exhibitionist apparently contemporaneous with the early 14th-century House of the Master of Venery at Cordes-sur-Ciel (Tarn) not far from Saint-Antonin.

click for more

Not far away, at Bruniquel there is a splendid male exhibitionist gargoyle, which may be a post-Romanesque remnant of the abbey of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. There may well be more in high places in France: it is simply a matter of continuing the assiduous search which Jørgen Andersen initiated on the European mainland in the 1970s. Not far away, at Bruniquel there is a splendid male exhibitionist gargoyle, which may be a post-Romanesque remnant of the abbey of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. There may well be more in high places in France: it is simply a matter of continuing the assiduous search which Jørgen Andersen initiated on the European mainland in the 1970s. In England, high post-Romanesque male exhibitionists have been identified at Ewerby in Lincolnshire and Wiggenhall (Norfolk). Anal and scrotal erxhibitionists (as well as mouth-pullers) are also found on misericords.

Also (probably) from the 15th century is this remarkably-well preserved carving in wood, on the Tourist Office in Sainte-Foy-La-Grande (Gironde), which accurately imitates Romanesque beard-touching exhibitionists.

The Old Testament book of Habakkuk, chapter II, verse 4:
Yea also, because he transgresseth by wine, he is a proud man, neither keepeth at home, who enlargeth his desire as hell, and is as death, and cannot be satisfied, but gathereth unto him all nations, and heapeth unto him all people...

verse 11: For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it.

verse 11: Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity.

verse 15: Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness.

verse 16: Thou art filled with shame for glory, drink thou also, and let thy foreskin be uncovered: the cup of the Lord's right hand shall be turned unto thee, and shameful spewing shall be on thy glory...

verse 18: What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and the teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols ?

verse 19: Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach...


Serious and justified worries about the loose morals of the rich account for the scenes of lasciviousness and concupiscence amongst other sins on capitals and tympana. Modern minds, however, find it difficult to understand why the highly-exaggerated corbel-carvings were put up on churches - pieces of sculpture sometimes far more graphic than was doctrinally necessary. A likely
explanation, less fanciful than it might seem at first, and able to account for both the Romanesque and most post-Romanesque corbel-figures, is an anthropological one. The carving of an exhibitionist (male or female) or any daring or dodgy motif on a corbel-table might well have been the culmination of the apprenticeship of a sculptor, literally a licence granted to him by his fellow-sculptors who certainly were the inspiration of the Freemasons in their confraternity. Masons' marks occur on churches all over Europe, and especially in Spain where monks and clerics trailed in the wake of the bloody Christian war-lord land-grab sanitised under the name Reconquistà, and built churches with the guilt-money given them by knightly versions of Milosević and Karadzić - and Franco.

Even today, masons and sculptors form exclusive teams and (like many co-operative tradesmen who feel undervalued) perform scabrous rites. In Romanesque times, to be a sculptor was as prestigious as being an international architect today. It is possible that sculptors were more powerful than priests on the ground, because they could simply take off from a site and find employment elsewhere without difficulty. So the carving at Girona (below) might have a different meaning than that which I advanced earlier in Images of Lust. The bishop may well not be overseeing the sculptors like some kind of art commissar, but merely skulking. The sculptors or masons take prominence in the scene, which might be telling us not that nothing went up on a church without ecclesiastical approval, but that what was sculpted went up on a church despite ecclesiastical qualms.

So, in this theory, sculptors who met with the artistic approval of their fellows, had the privilege of carving one or more startling corbel - a kind of satire on the exhibition-piece which is required of skilled craftsmen in wood and stone even today, which then was either slipped past ecclesiastical approval or was placed defiantly or by right and rite. Some (very few) might have had to be placed very high or out of sight to avoid local trouble. But it is pertinent to this theory that many churches in Spain were not properly finished: unfilled scaffolding-holes abound, so teams of masons could up and off with an impunity very similar to the propensity for strike action enjoyed by trades unionists in post-War France and Britain.

The drawback of the theory of initiation-, prentice- or master-pieces of sculptors fully received into their teams, guilds or confraternities is that a few of the Romanesque males are extremely crude efforts. These exceptions might well be simple imitations on churches whose sculptors were not master-craftsmen..

Click to enlarge

Cloister capital, Girona (Spain) click to enlarge

However, some extremely well-carved male exhibitionist gargoyles and other figures can now be seen high up on church towers, out of sight except to the keenest eyes (which were not so common in mediæval times) - for example Ewerby (Lincolnshire) and Wiggenhall (Norfolk) - and even on secular buildings, as at Bruniquel (all mentioned above). The beam-carving at Claybrooke Parva is tucked away high above the western end of the nave and is quite small to the unaided eye. Without modern binoculars and a powerful torch it would be easy to overlook.

Male exhibitionists are not magical. Nor are they simply ancient survivals from an imagined, invented "Celtic" or Classical-pagan past, but sculptures which fitted into their Christian context by dint of - on the one hand - widespread and uncontrollable concupiscence amongst the peasantry and to an extent amongs the lowliest clergy who were drawn from that peasantry. On the other hand, they might very well have been not only exhibitionists but exhibition pieces, proudly and lewdly displayed by master-craftsmen as quasi-pious jeux d'esprit.

Phallic and male-exhibitionist images, just like their female counterparts are surely intended to be attractive/protective or repulsive - depending on the attitude of the viewer.

Finally, it would be instructive to note the similarities between the 14th century Libro de Buen Amor (Book of Good Love/Loving) by Juán Ruiz and the iconography of Romanesque churches, particularly corbel-tables. Both mix the 'sacred' with the 'profane' - a very variable and sometimes ambiguous dichotomy. Both are sometimes scatological. Both display irony and humour. And both are frequently enigmatic, ambivalent. While two centuries separate the Libro and the execution of the explicitly sexual Romanesque corbels and capitals, mediæval life was very similar for those living in Spain and Catholic (non-Cathar) France and beyond during those times, when the rôle of the Catholic church was pervasive.

Similarly, and closer to the 12th century is Carmina Burana, which, according to Wikipedia, is "a manuscript of 254 poems and dramatic texts mostly from the 11th or 12th century, although some are from the 13th century. The pieces are mostly bawdy, irreverent, and satirical. They were written principally in Mediæval Latin; a few in Middle High German, and some with traces of Old French or Provençal. Some are macaronic, a mixture of Latin and German or French vernacular, written by students and clergy when the Latin idiom was the lingua franca across Italy and western Europe for travelling scholars, universities and theologians. Most of the poems and songs appear to be the work of Goliards: minor clergy (mostly students) who satirised the Catholic Church. The collection preserves the works of a number of poets, including Peter of Blois, Walter of Châtillon, and an anonymous poet..."

In the same spirit of joie-de-vivre - in opposition to the Christian use of the exhibitionist motif - is a remarkable pair of gateposts in county Donegal in north-west Ireland. These are covered by cement rendering, into which were incised - when wet, sometime near the end of the twentieth century - a male and a female exhibitionist figure facing each other.

click for more

click to read about this syncretic piece of 'folk-art'


non-copyright Anthony Weir, 2007-2023



An antique (probably Roman) brothel-token.


Late 14th century anal exhibitionist from the Gorleston Psalter.
This is a direct (if anatomically incorrect) lampoon on sexual practices in monasteries.
The brown habit is worn by the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor and Friars Minor Capuchin.


A beast-head/genital joke ?
A corbel at Carpiquet (Calvados)


Male, female or hermaphrodite ?
Part of a frieze on Nîmes cathedral (Gard).


But not all naked figures are sinners.









Adam (?) Lord of Beasts (in Eden ?) on a 5th century ivory in the Bargello Museum, Florence.

click to enlarge

This detail of the archivolt of the South front of Modena cathedral
seems not to represent concupiscence or sexual desire.

click to read more



Reaktion Books, 1992.



Sodomy, Masculinity and Law in Medieval Literature: France and England, 1050-1230
(Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature)
by William E. Burgwinkle, 2009.

The Introduction and Conclusion can be read online.
Here are a few lines from the Conclusion.

"St Anselm defended his reluctance to prosecute sodomy in 1102 with the argument that it was already so commonly practised that people would have difficulty recognising it or themselves within the category. Such a statement could not have been made by the end of the century, when 'sodomy' had become a matter of discourse and persecution. In the intervening years, increased attention to celibacy, monastic rules, marriage practices, and the status of knighthood had the effect of calling attention to the performative nature of masculinity, to its ritualisation and theatricalisation. Institutions responded by setting up ever more rigorous criteria by which men earned, or failed to earn, their masculine status; and accusations of sodomy began to feature in these attempts to discipline masculine subjects by controlling and patrolling gender barriers."



The enigma of the Sheela-na-gigs


The Enigma of the 'Sheela-na-gigs'


Column-swallowers ->



Bosch: detail from
The Garden of Earthly Delights, circa 1500

The pictures and text on these pages are condensed from a former Work in Progress, The Silent Orgy
They are dedicated to the late Martha Weir,
who was amazed but unfazed by these carvings,
and without whom Images of Lust"
would never have been researched or written.



Some Relevant Spanish Websites :

Las representaciones obscenas en el arte románico: entre la vulgaridad y la apostura

El enigma del Románico Erótico

Erotismo en el arte románico y medieval



Click here for a related essay:



the nature of 'christianity'


A very modern interpretation
of the Male Exhibitionist Motif >



Mr Sheldon says binoculars are needed to see the carving.

A stonemason who carried out work on a cathedral tower left behind something to be remembered by.
Saul Sheldon says he made a carving of male genitals while working on the west face of Hereford Cathedral tower.

He says it is a stonemasons' tradition to do so and said that anyone looking for it would have to look carefully to find it.
He added he hoped the cathedral authorities would quite like it once they had got over the shock.
He said: "Some people might think it is not appropriate but some people might quite like it.
"I don't know what the cathedral authorities think about it but I think they will quite like it once they get over the shock."

Cathedral spokesman Glyn Morgan said they were not too surprised as they were aware of the craftsman's tradition of leaving little jokey reminders.
"At All Saints' Church in Hereford we have a carving of someone baring his buttocks to the congregation below.
"It's a long established tradition and it all serves to brighten a mood."

June 2007


Within the context of images of lechery, this report should be treated with caution -
but we should also not overlook the possiblity of the unintended consequences of putting up funny little obscene carvings on churches.
What might have appalled prudish monks might well have amused illiterate peasants, pilgrims and passers-by.

I am especially grateful to Tina Negus, Julianna Lees, Jacques Martin, Kjartan Hauglid, Bob Trubshaw, Jean-Marie Sicard and John Harding
for their generous help and donation of photos to this website.


the web

NB : Refresh the page before making another search.

This site has been enhanced by FloatBox

<previous pagesummary of text
top of page map of Romanesque EuropeCD-ROM
next page>