Rapping the Priapic in old-town Segovia

Rolf Strom-Olsen. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

2 February 2010

You can find the symbols of cultures from the distant past hiding below the eves of hundreds of churches. Some of these symbols refer to fertility, and seem strangely inappropriate alongside traditional Christian icons.

Recently, a group of students from the IE University campus in Segovia joined me on a warm and sunny Saturday morning to explore the extraordinary Romanesque legacy of medieval Segovia. The churches of San Clemente and San Millan are both located a short distance from the imposing aqueduct and both help reveal something of the history, not only of Segovia, but of the pattern of medieval reconquest and re-Christianisation generally across the northern half of the Iberian peninsula. Now, among the many pleasures to be had in exploring old churches is untangling the rich, complex and often ambiguous symbolic and iconographic representations that decorate both interiors and exteriors. A centrepiece of our excursion revolved around just such a symbol.

Medieval churches, in particular, tend to feature a syncretic symbolic language. As Helmut Schlunk und Theodor Hauschild have observed (Die Denkmäler der fruhchristlichen und westgotischen Zeit), the symbolism found across early-medieval religious architecture in Spain is often deeply rooted in a Roman or Celt-Iberian past. Typically, such symbols are re-interpreted within the Christian tradition. Thus, for instance, ancient symbols of sun-worship are recast in the light (no pun intended) of John 8:12: “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” An abstract motif of intersecting petals, common across the Roman world starting under the Antonines (and probably a great deal earlier), can be easily translated into Christian terms because of its cruciform shape. Both are ubiquitous features of Iberian Romanesque. This syncretistic borrowing applies elsewhere, of course: churches from Ireland to Armenia bear witness in their carved or sculpted forms to an iconographical landscape that stretches deep into antiquity.

For the casual visitor, one of the most incongruous instances of this cultural fusion is found in the persistence of fertility symbols, since they often seem jarringly out of place with what we think of as a normative Christian iconography.

The Sheela-na-Gig figure, for instance, possibly derives from an ancient Celtic Goddess. The exhibitionist female form of the Sheela is typically featured in a prone position with an oversized vulva, sometimes accompanied by a corresponding male figure, as at the Church of Saint Clement in the tiny Hebridean village of Rodel. There, the Sheela is displayed on the East (Jerusalem) side of the Church’s main tower and was obviously of sufficient cultic importance that it remained in this position of prominence even after the tower was largely rebuilt in the late eighteenth century in a climate of rather puritanical Calvinism. There are hundreds of representations of the Sheel-na-gig on churches across Britain and Ireland. Their significance is so incongruous within the larger corpus of Christian iconography that, as Barbara Freitag has observed in her interesting monograph on the subject, “When Sheel-na-gigs were first brought to scholarly attention, during the first half of the nineteenth century, antiquaries were baffled and embarrassed.”

I am unaware of the Sheela-na-gig figure within the Spanish iconographic tradition, but the corresponding exhibitionist male figure can indeed be found. Anthony Weir and James Jerman in their work Images of Lust: sexual carvings on medieval churches have catalogued hundreds of such representations and one, so I learned, can be found on the 12th century Church of San Millan here in Segovia. Unfortunately, the authors remain mute as to the exact location of the figure. So it was that, with admittedly some bafflement and perhaps a blush of embarrassment, but mostly interest and enthusiasm, our group set out to locate this curious and fascinating holdover from an earlier age. We spread out and carefully surveyed the carvings on the exterior corbels. And it was not long before an eagle-eyed student spotted the figure on the outside of one of the apses. The squatting male figure is striking. He features an oversized novelty phallus, which he clutches onanistically. This specie of megaphallic exhibitionism is found in near-identical form in France, Italy and even Sweden.

That the San Millan carving, like the many others that can be found across Europe, is medieval in origin is beyond doubt. However, it is far from clear that this kind of exhibitionist iconography holds a specifically medieval and not an older form of ritual significance. Christian Churches were typically built on pre-existing sacred spots. Indeed, many Christian churches are built on top of (or sometimes out of) Roman temples, which were themselves erected on ground felt to hold a ritual or religious significance probably stretching back to pre-history. Likewise, the importance of fertility cults and rituals is well-documented, not only in the Western tradition, but across the globe; the association of oversized genitalia with fertility rites is iconographically consistent from Africa to Asia. Although it must remain speculative, I strongly suspect the persistence of such imagery within the larger symbolism of Church carving reflects the persistence of an ancient shamanism that associated specific locations with an augury of fertility and reproduction. Whether found in Segovia or elsewhere, such imagery should be seen as part of the larger tapestry of symbols that filled the lives of cultures used to participating in their world through totems and omens.

Whatever the case, the presence of this unusual motif is a reminder that Romanesque Segovia is of considerable historical, architectural and cultural interest and, in more general terms, that churches bear silent witness to epochs that, while they may be long gone, still have their stories to tell.

On behalf of IE University and all the students who participated, I would like to thank Father Jimenez of the parish of San Millan for his friendly assistance in ensuring our visit was a success.

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