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Subject: Re: Dating early medieval Irish churches and sheela na gigs
From: Helen McKay <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Scholars and students of Old Irish <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Fri, 10 Feb 2012 09:09:36 +0000

text/plain (104 lines)

Hi Niamh, welcome to the list.

Not sure but may have given you a bumsteer somewhere there.  The 
Picts supposedly didnt build stone churches either until after 720 or so, 
when they asked the Northumbrians if they could build them like they 
did.  But, that doesnt mean the Picts didnt have carved stones way 
before then, the symbol stones start to appear around 300 AD, and I 
personally believe that the CII stones (with a long-stemmed cross on a 
slab) are from the era of the Celtic Xian church, which ended at the 
same time that the Northumbrian church (with its then considerably 
growing wealth and power - a much better model hey! ) was invited in 
and the Irish familia booted out.  Now other people like to hold that the 
CII stones come from a much later period and were copied from the 
Northumbrians too, but that is untenable for many reasons of which I 
wont go into here, just to say that dating is problematic and not agreed 
But regardless, it is early.  So if these Pictish instances are early sheela-
na-gigs, then they would have been at least taken back to Ireland (if 
not already there) in the mid 700s (along with a whole load of other 
stuff, like Pictish centaurs), and eventually would have found their way 
onto both wooden carvings and stone carvings - although there's no 
suggestion of anything like a sheela-na-gig on an Irish high cross that 
I'm aware of.  
I just dont like coincidence.  And if there are suggestions of a Pictish 
instance of a sheela-na-gig, it finally does give us a source for the 
tradition.  (meaning shared Celtic I would think...?) 

On Thu, 9 Feb 2012 11:47:50 +0000, Niamh Whitfield 
<[log in to unmask]> wrote:

>This is, I think, my first posting to this list which I have been  
>enjoying as a lurker from an archaeological and art historical  
>background, with an interest in Celtic Studies - although I made an  
>appearance here this week courtesy of David Stifter ( a good idea, by  
>the way, to spread my enquiry about evil eyes further, so thanks 
>In response to Helen's interesting posting from Australia  about  
>sheela-na-gigs, I am afraid that the dating of  the Irish church in  
>question AD 550-700 is unlikely to be correct , because if it  
>incorporates a piece of sculpture it is  presumably built of stone.   
>It was once common to date early Medieval Irish  stone churches this  
>early. But recent research indicates that the earliest churches in  
>Ireland were made of wood, wattle or sods, and that stone churches 
>a relatively late development. Corbelled dry-stone churches, like  
>those on Illaunloughan Skellig Michael and Gallarus (the ones shaped 
>bit like boats turned upside down) seem, on the basis of radio carbon  
>dates at excavated sites, to be no earlier than AD 800.  While  
>mortared stone churches only seem to have been built after  
>approximately AD 900. Those who wish to know more about all this  
>consult the wonderful new book by Tomás Ó Carragáin (of UCC),   
>Churches in Early Medieval Ireland  (Yale University Press, New Haven  
>& London 2010).
>Again there are pretty sound art-historical reasons for dating the  
>development of the Sheela-na-gigs to the Romanesque period, ie the  
>11th to 12th  century AD, as noted in the article by Shae Clancy to  
>which we were given a link yesterday. The general view, which I  
>personally think must be correct, is that these are best seen in a  
>contemporary European context rather than an archaic Iron Age (ie  
>'Celtic') or indeed Pictish one.
>We are all involved in fast moving fields and it is very hard to keep  
>abreast of developments in other disciplines, which is one reason why  
>interdisciplinary conferences, like the Irish Medievalists ones, are  
>Niamh Whitfield
>On 9 Feb 2012, at 09:22, Helen McKay wrote:
>> I have just seen a beautiful 'sheela-na-gig' up here at the top end of
>> Australia (I'm currently staying with my son in Darwin).  So the  
>> general
>> idea seems a pretty widespread one...
>> However, what is interesting is that there appears to be two 
>> of what looks suspiciously like a sheela-na-gig - on pictish stones
>> (which as per normal are completely ignored in any sort of  
>> discussion).
>> Unfortunately I dont have my big books with me here so I cant right
>> now send on the details.  The dating is probably of the Irish Celtic  
>> Xian
>> church, possibly 550-700.  And the two pictures appear to be 'angels'
>> with wings, squatting on the cross-beam of the cross.
>> Of course, it 'could' be a coincidence - but why make an angel squat  
>> like
>> that?  seems right wierd.  So, would it be off the planet to suggest  
>> that
>> the sheela-na-gig is some sort of fusion between a pagan goddess 
>> the idea of a guardian angel?  (yes yes I know, guardian angels 
>> days dont go around doing this sort of thing, but ... the Irish are so
>> fond of them, the only really good comfort that catholicism gave us
>> when we were growing up :-)
>> Helen

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