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Romanesque Churches and Sexual Symbols

How Closely do you Look when you Travel?


sexual image Ujué spain picture

Sexual carving at the fortified Romanesque church at Ujué, Spain

James martin

I am not necessarily a fan of Cathedral gazing when I travel. This year, a book I read, called "Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches" by Anthony Weir and James Jerman, changed all that.

"Sexual imagery in cathedrals? Is he mad?," I can hear you asking.

Well, madness is besides the point--I have pictures.

In any case I found myself visiting the very interesting Spanish town of Ujué because I'd heard there was a fortified church there. I went and poked around a bit, and then came upon a section of carved figures near the doors. Mere decoration, I thought as I almost passed them by.

But as I drew closer I could see all manner of fantastic figures: A megaphallic man, possibly masturbating, obviously vandalized in a moment of puritanical lust. There were mouth-pullers and ungodly halo pullers and monsters having lunch. People lunch. (See the annotated picture gallery)

So what's going on here? A little Medieval History is in Order

To figure out what these figures are doing on a church, we have to gloss over a little history. By 1000 AD in Europe, the barbarian invasions have pretty much come to an end, the Christian kingdoms in Spain have become more powerful as Islamic power wanes. The resulting balance means that Christians, Muslims and Jews can begin to live peacefully together (at least until the crusades, when Jews were stigmatized for avarice and usury). The year 1000 passes without incident

Peace and relative prosperity comes with the end of the invasions. Monasteries are restored, along with monastic power. Churches are built. By the beginning of the 12th century stone carving skills come together with the Classical features of the many churches being constructed, and a style (and period) emerges known as the Romanesque. In 1075, Construction begins on the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the alleged but unlikely site of the tomb of James the Great. Santiago de Compostela becomes the third most important pilgrimage destination in Europe after Jerusalem and Rome.

The pilgrimage routes brought wealth and commerce (including prostitution) and a building boom in churches as the wealthy traversed the routes and left sanctuaries in their wake. According to Weir and Jerman:

Parish churches in the twelfth century were 'sold' rather as fitted kitchens or houses are today: for so much money you would get so big a building and so much carving...and their details were chosen, according to the money available, by the sponsor, the incumbent priest or a spiritual advisor--perhaps an abbot or priest or private chaplain.

Weir and Jerman postulate that the sexual carvings were produced as symbolic moral lessons about sin for the illiterate villagers:

Avaritia (greed) and Luxuria (lust, sexual greed) were comparatively easy to embody in symbolic form; other sins like Envy, Pride and Anger were less so...If Greed and Lust seem predominate it is because the Romanesque period was obsessed by these human failings.

So there you have it. Sexual sins were easy (and more fun) to render in grotesque form, and hell was easier to portray than heaven. And every time you looked up from the church square, you'd see someone's version of hell waiting to scare you into compliance with moral law.

So What Happens Next? The Gothic Period Very Much Condensed.

The images turn into Gargoyles; the invention of the flying buttress allows the cathedrals to offer huge open spaces, and suddenly it is easier for the church to offer views of heaven and its rewards rather than images of Hell and Damnation.

Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches

Any web article can only gloss over the extensive discussion of sexual carvings in Medieval Churches (exhibitionists, sheelas, phalluses, to name a few). Anthony Weir and James Jerman's book offers pictures, drawings, maps, and a fine discussion of this theme for interested readers. You may wish to read Images of Lust (compare prices) to get deeper into the subject.

(click to page two if you'd like to see information on visiting the area around Ujué)

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