Going west – the Kilpeck corbels

Wales 035

The bellcote reminded me of the first church we had visited, where our adventures had begun, though this one is a 19thC 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…

Wales 036

…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 91 of them, holding up the carved and decorated eaves of the roof. Now there are fewer… a ‘mere’ 84 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…

collage 2

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 what they seem. Many of the designs seem to contain human heads.

Wales 041

Others look surprisingly modern…

Wales 044

Others are very strange, with figures clasped in their mouths.

collage3

You could spend a lifetime just studying these figures.

collage

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 and 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.

Wales 039

Perhaps 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,ย  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.

Wales 053

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 it? Maybe the answers lie not in academia, but in our own human reactions to these images.

Wales 051

Given that they decorate a church, a holy place, they may well be reinforcing the idea that sinning against the rules of the Church will be punished in unimaginable ways… and maybe, just maybe, they are reminding us too that laughter, joy and the human life we live are also sacred.

Wales 009

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She has written a number of books, both alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com
This entry was posted in Ancient Egypt, Ancient sites, Art, Churches, Don and Wen, Goddess, Grief, History, mystery, Photography, Sacred sites, Wales and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Going west – the Kilpeck corbels

  1. These are really interesting and I wonder the legends and stories that go with them. The hound with the rabbit particularly. My head went wild with probability.

    Like

  2. Bun Karyudo says:

    Corbelimey!

    Sorry, I really, really wanted to make this appalling pun right from the beginning of your post. It was very interesting to see the carvings. I know what you mean about some of them looking very modern. The dog and rabbit, for example, look like they might be produced by an animated studio today. The Sheela na gig, on the other hand, is not something I remember seeing in any Disney movie.

    Funnily enough, I first heard of this particular type of carving very recently. I’m not sure if you know Inese’s Making Memories blog, but she mentioned another example in a church in Ireland. (The post is here, if you are interested. https://inesemjphotography.com/2016/06/04/sheela-na-gig/) I was a little startled at how graphic the carvings were, but they’re certainly very interesting and enigmatic too.

    Like

  3. These are amazing. ๐Ÿ™‚ I love how lively they are, even after all this time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. merrildsmith says:

    Fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

    Like

  5. Mary Smith says:

    These are amazing and it is astonishing how well preserved they are.

    Like

  6. Running Elk says:

    ๐Ÿ˜ฎ
    In the name of the wee man… a veritable cornucopia of bestiary forms… kind of speechless… and you havent even gone inside yet…
    A well kept secret this! Starting to look like our wee gem at Roslin may be flagging a bit in the league (should such a thing exist, of course… ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

    Like

  7. I love how each corbel is unique. That’s just amazing creativity and workmanship. The Sheela na gig is interesting, especially since it’s symbolism is unknown. I’ll go with the more positive speculation of birth, fertility, and woman-power ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  8. My wife was down there a coupla years’ back on a story-telling course. The group called in. They were looking rounds the grounds, taking pictures, you know the stuff. A very obvious government unmarked van pulled up, asked them all what they were photographing.
    I mean, it was obvious.
    Or was it? Some secret government base around there, do you think? Training grounds? Definitely something. Hardly very secretive, though, were they!

    Like

  9. amo says:

    One interesting thing about the Sheela na gig is that she doesn’t seem to have any breasts. More symbolism? I love the modern pig(dog?)-rabbit.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Many of the suggested derivations of her name include “of the breasts”, but few of the Sheelas have them… which does seem odd… almost as if the attributes of the nourishing mother have been subtracted.

      Like

  10. TanGental says:

    fantastic; I’ve not seen anything quite like these and the ‘fertility’ corbel is super. As you say game for a laugh!

    Like

  11. dgkaye says:

    Fascinating carvings, possibly a language in itself? ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s