Sex and Art in the Campurrian Romanesque

By Mª Paz Delgado Buenaga


Existing literature about Romanesque art is varied and abundant: architecture, sculpture, painting, socio-economical context associated with this art, etc.

However, when we start to address such a topic with complex symbolism, like the sexual or erotic, we face a series of inevitable problems. Literature published about Romanesque art barely mentions these representations. When they do, they put forth a derogatory meaning, as if the art is obscene, dirty, and sinful. Some authors even describe the artisan sculptors of erotic representations as “artists of medium value”, but the most outrageous thing is the censorship that has been imposed many times over the artwork—mutilated, hacked off, or totally destroyed.

This paper doesn’t claim to be a catalog of art. Instead, I consider it more important to try and give answers to the mysteries they pose. Why did they make that kind of representation? What was their meaning? Do they appear only in a specific geographical and temporal field?


Society in Cantabria presents a structure with a well-defined hierarchy, the base of which is regulated by ownership of lands. Economical power grants political power: counts, aristocrats, big landlords, and monastic organizations. After this group, there is the rest of the population, mainly freemen and servants.

These oppositions serve as the cause for feudal-dependent relationships. The consequence is the decline of social classes formed by freemen in favor of dependent peasants.

In this social structure, first we find the King, the supreme figure possessing the greatest power. Second in rank, we find the count, who rules the counties and is appointed by the king. Next we find the “potestas terra”, the governor of a region and who is not necessarily a count. The infanzones with ancestry are second-class aristocrats, yet they don’t have a bureaucratic position. They are, however, respected in the councils. Among the low classes we find the servants, although serfdom wasn’t frequent in these lands and, because of repopulation, there was an abundance of freemen: farmers attached to their lands and subjects to their lord, and collazos, who paid a series of taxes for cultivating other people’s lands.

The artisans or tradesmen, like blacksmiths, millers, potters, etc. weren’t independent people yet. Most probably they were servants or colonists of the estate, who specialized due to the existing closed economy.

Together with the civil nobility we find the religious nobility, composed of bishops and abbots from the most important monasteries, where they exerted their dominance. Monks, brothers, priests, deacons, clergymen, etc. form the rest of the religious people.

The Church was a very powerful institution; a real economic, political, and social power. Nevertheless, the image offered by the clergy to the rest of the population cannot be thought of as exemplary. The high ranks—always coming from noble families—were more worried about the material assets than the spiritual ones. The low clergy didn’t have any intellectual training and most were even illiterate. From a moral point of view, there is a big laxity towards customs, and it wasn’t strange to find cases of concubines, or even wives and children.

Religion was polluted by myths, faith mixed with superstitions. Sex and religion intertwine. All that aside, the belief that “alms remove sin”, leaves the Church as the communicating instrument when contacting God. This places the Church in a revered place.


Love and sexuality have always been linked to human nature. They have been present in every culture and nation from the beginning of time, with different forms of representation. Sometimes they comply with the divine will whereas other times they clearly oppose it: polygamy, incest, homosexuality, onanism, bestiality, prostitution.

First of all, it’s necessary to recognize we cannot observe these representations from a modern point of view; that is, from our concept of values and morality. What we consider to be erotic or pornographic may not have been considered such by people of the 12th century. Sexual repression was less than in later centuries, and through the concept of free sexuality we in modern-day conceive sexual expression as shameful.

The representations of sexual themes are mainly located outside the churches, although there are notable exceptions. They are situated in the corbels holding the eaves of the roofs and appear frequently in the metopes located between the corbels. Finally, they can even appear in capitals, both inside and outside.

The theme is varied: ithyphallic men, women in lewd positions (both single and married ones, the latter wearing a headdress), anal and vaginal coitus, fellatio, hugging couples, women giving birth, masturbating men and women, erect phalli, ithyphallic monkeys, animals mating, exhibitionists. Other representations that can also be considered as erotic or pleasurable ones are musicians, dancers, mermaids, people laughing, mainly when they come from a society still wondering whether the music, dancing, or laughing are sins.

The problem posed with the iconography is that these representations respond to a desire to express the social reality of the time, in which case they would be expressing the everyday life, its traditions and customs. In this case, the sexuality would be something normal and natural in their lives, leaving aside all kinds of inhibitions. Or, on the contrary, these figures are packed with allegorical senses, full of symbolism.

The symbolism is present in many spheres of Romanesque art. For example, the church symbolizes the house of God on Earth, reflecting the universal order. Churches are oriented towards the East, where the sun rises (Christ). The vaults imitate the sky. The altar is the most important point of contact with divinity, and these are framed with the apse (heaven). Windows denote doctors, and the light coming through represents the thoughts of those doctors. Columns signify the bishops. Finally, we get to the pavement, mean to exemplify the common people…

I think the solution to the iconographical problem is found in both approaches. Some sculptures have a decorative meaning, the artists expressing their daily events or their fantasies, or using them as a means to deride the religious customs of some priests and monks. Others are full of symbolic messages, such as:

  • Harmony in a married couple hugging each other.
  • Lust is the form of a female surrounded by snakes biting her sexual organs.
  • The Devil reflected in monsters or animal shapes.
  • Fertility represented by female and male sexual organs.


Before giving a listing of the churches with sexual motifs in Campoo, we must locate its geographical boundaries. Where can we find these representations? Perhaps they only exist in the South of Cantabria?

They exist along the coast of Cantabria, Santillana del Mar, San Vicente de la Barquera, San Román de Escalante, in the Besaya basin and the North-South axis linking the coast with the interior. In Castañeda, Bárcena de Pie de Concha, Molledo, Argomilla de Cayón, and some isolated churches in the valley of Liébana, namely Piasca, Perrozo. Taken as a whole, they coincide with the medieval roads, heirs of the ancient Roman ones, which were the great roads for the development of commerce.

These representations are abundant in the northern area of Palencia: Frómista, San Cebrián de Mudá, Matalbaniega, Gama, Villabermudo, Revilla de Santullán. Cervatos’ influence is witnessed in many of these churches, and can very well be the artwork of a single group of sculptors.

There are also examples in Burgos: San Pedro de Tejada, Valdenoceda, San Miguel de Cornezuelo, San Quirce. This erotic or sexual art is common throughout the northern area of the Iberian Peninsula; less so in the area of the Camino de Santiago (St James Way/Path). In its beginnings, St. James’ Way was situated in the coast but, from the 9th century onwards, the “classic” route for pilgrims is imposed inland. People from all corners of Europe came to Spain, bringing the knowledge and wisdom of the times. It was the way of penetration and distribution of Romanesque art in Spain.

The motivations for starting the Way were diverse: true devotion and faith, the wish to know new lands and people, or to fulfill penalties imposed by the civil or canonical jurisdictions. After some time, it became a market, fair, theatre, outdoor brothel, and a general place for looters, scoundrels, and loafers. It will be a place where lust and faith get mixed up, where you sin but God forgives you. It’s here we find the origin of erotic and sexual representations mixed with religion, where the threats of an eternal damnation live together with the pleasures of the flesh.


San Pedro de Cervatos (1)

This collegiate church, which was an ancient monastery, was built around 1129 (12th century), and it constitutes one of the most representative works of Romanesque art in Cantabria. It is located 5 kilometers South of Reinosa, in the town called Cervatos, being the main gate to enter the valley of Campoo when you come from Castille, and it is compulsory to pass through it in order to communicate the plateau with the coast of Cantabria. The great variety of sculptures with erotic and “obscene” motifs make this the place with the most artwork having these characteristics, with its vast repertoire being the most complete, nationwide.

Every church in it’s surroundings falls directly under its influence, creating a school of style.

The sculptural representations with erotic motifs can be found in corbels, in capitals, in the main door, and even in the apse. They show an extreme realism, showing the sex scenes in every detail.

We can find in the corbels women posed in lewd positions, musicians (harpist, a rebec player), coitus scenes, phallic figures, other figures in a sexual embrace, women giving birth, ithyphallic men. In the metopes located at the front door: woman with snakes biting her breasts, copulating animals.

The capitals are situated in two small windows: one is the left window on the southern wall, the other is the left window on the apse, and we can find the same representations in both of them: a woman with raised legs, showing her sex (married since she wears a headdress), and an ithyphallic man who has raised his hands to his head. The situation is reversed at the southern wall. In the first window, the man is located on the left and the woman is on the right, and in the second window (apse), the woman is on the left, and the man is on the right.

San Martín de Elines (2)

This is a collegiate church and an ancient Benedictine monastery, built around 1102 (beginnings of the 12th century). It is located in Valderredible, in the town called Elines, and has always been an influential center for the whole valley.

The erotic representations aren’t as abundant as in Cervatos, but still notable, despite their lacking realism and being crude. In S. Martín de Elines, these appear exclusively in the corbels. Their motifs are the following ones: ithyphallic onanistic man, ithyphallic man with a monkey head who is tightening a rope around his own neck with a wheel, woman giving birth, a couple of young lovers (or a married couple) who are hugging each other.

San Juan Bautista de Villanueva de la Nía (3)

Church located in Valderredible that seems to have been built in the early part of the 12th century. It belongs to the Cervatos school of style, just like we are shown by the comparison of capitals and corbels in both churches.

The corbels appear on the southern wall, the northern wall, and the apse. The representations we can find include a man touching his penis in an onanistic attitude, woman holding her legs open with her hands, woman giving birth, ithyphallic man, and coitus.

The erotic representations are situated outside the temple to symbolize the sins of the men (in this case the sins of the flesh). As such, they couldn’t exist inside the house of God. In Villanueva de la Nía we see the opposite of this pattern, the erotic art located in the most important place of the church: the apse, which represents heaven, where believers get in touch with God.

San Cipriano de Bolmir (4)

This is a small church located in the vicinity of Reinosa, about 2 or 3 kilometers away, built at the beginning of the 12th century and relating directly with the Cervatos school of style. Sexual representations are situated outside the church, in the corbels on the southern wall, northern wall, and apse. The motifs include the following: man in an “obscene” posture, ithyphallic character, embraced figures in a possible sexual posture, musicians (harpist), contortionist, women with raised legs and showing their sex, ithyphallic man.

La Población de Yuso (5)

Church located in La Población de Yuso, town at the border of the reservoir at the Ebro. Now only its apse belongs to the Romanesque period, where there is a corbel decorated with a virile member (phallus).

Santa María de Henestrosa de las Quintanillas (6)

Church in Henestrosa de las Quintanillas, in Valdeolea, chronologically situated at the end of the 12th century. Only some corbels have erotic representations, and are on the wall of the presbytery: mermaid or woman who opens her legs with her arms, musician (rebec player), woman or dancer who twists her body in a contorted position.

Ermita de Dondevilla (7)

Located to the west of Aldea de Ebro, this is a small hermitage from the end of the 12th century. It has a corbel on the northern wall, depicting a woman with lifted legs that she holds up with her hands.

Santa Lucía y San Andrés de Valdelomar (8)

Small church located in Valderredible. The only erotic representation is a corbel on the northern wall, showing the representation of a phallus.

San Martín de Sobrepenilla (9)

Situated in Valderredible and whose chronology seems to be at the end of the 12th century. It has erotic representations in the exterior: there is the representation of a phallus in a corbel on the northern wall in the bell gable. And also inside the church: on the left side of the right capital on the triumphal arch there is a naked woman, and there are two snakes biting her breasts while she cups them. In the left capital on the same triumphal arch, the figure on the right side is a naked woman or mermaid who is opening her legs or tail with both hands.

San Marcos de Montecillo (10)

Very small church located in Valderredible, whose chronology seems to be the end of the 12th century.

There are two similar corbels on the southern wall: first, a woman with headdress who opens her legs, which frames the head, and she is holding her legs with both hands; second, a character, man or woman, with their feet up, framing their head. In the apse, a deteriorated corbel seems to represent a phallus.


We will start approaching this section with the traditional version or interpretation, the most widespread, although that doesn’t mean it is the most correct premise. The traditional hypothesis claims that these artistic (erotic) manifestations are representations of sin, lust, and obscenity. In a society where illiteracy was common, a way of teaching religion was to show biblical or historical aspects inside the churches. Thus, this theory claims that the intention of these works is to give a moral lesson by considering worldly pleasures sinful and loathsome in comparison to the blissfulness of the afterlife.

These representations, which are part of a Christian motif, are unique since normally ecclesiastical works suffer from excessive modesty, in that saints are dressed and hiding their bodies, thereby preventing carnal contemplations and temptations on the observer’s part.

Given that the church considers sex evil, its practice and pleasure must come with guilt. Maybe that’s the meaning of the sexual representations during the Romanesque period?

However, despite so much warning and prohibition to stop the perversions and sexual excesses of the population, it seems that the daily reality was very different. It’s probable that the great variety in erotic themes were born from the intense sexual experiences of those times.

Another interpretation claims that this erotic theme appeared because of the influence of the oriental cultures arriving through the Muslim civilization. We mustn’t forget that the presence of Islam and its culture have existed in the Peninsula since the 8th century.

The Mozarabic, Christians in Muslim territories, ended up imbued by both cultures, the Christian and the Muslim ones, giving birth to Mozarab art, which brings together elements from both cultures. The Koran forbade the historical representations in the Muslim art, which contains abundant vegetal and geometric decorations. But the Mozarabs don’t have to fulfill the prohibition stated by the Koran since they are Christians and they express all their influences in Romanesque art: vegetal motifs, and the sensual and refined oriental world (dancers in suggestive attitudes, musicians accompanying them, erotic scenes).

The concept of sex in the two cultures—Christian and Muslim—is very different. Oriental customs consider sex a source of happiness versus the western world viewing sex as evil and degrading.

As we have explained in a previous section, each element in the structure of a church had a precise purpose and a predetermined sense. The highest place in a temple symbolizes a superior life status that we should aspire to reach. Therefore, I don’t think it is absurd to think of the possibility that the sexual manifestations so abundant in high places or in apses not only have the purpose of observing and forbidding, but could also indicate a path to perfection, taking into account the oriental influence.

This hypothesis is reinforced by traces of oriental influence in the architectural remains in some of our churches: the Mozarab tympanum in San Pedro de Cervatos; remains of a previous building in San Martín de Elines; some signatures of stonemasons, such as the five pointed star.

Another hypothesis or interpretation is based on the “reproductive necessity”. The population of the Western Christian world was limited during the Middle Ages, and it was in constant danger because of the numerous wars, famine, great infant mortality, etc. This problem got worse in the Iberian Peninsula, due to the Muslim presence and to the constant need of warriors or champions of the Christian religion. It’s in this time the biblical advice of “be fruitful and multiply” was put into practice and became reproductive propaganda that helped occupy new lands, forming true human borders, and created big armies of Christians who would expand the Church and the Christian religion.

Between the 11th and the 13th centuries, several military expeditions will emerge, coming from different countries and under the patronage of the Pope, to expel the Muslims from Palestine. These are known as the Crusades. The human losses are huge. A great number of young men lose their lives and do not propagate. Do the erotic images represent a way of encouraging people to have more sex in order to procreate?

There can be another reason, which is as powerful as the previous one: the reception of the ecclesiastical tax, the “tithe” or tenth part of the crop, would make the Church get rich in no time. The ones paying were the ones laboring the land (“laborers”); in that way, the more people working the lands, the more taxes they got. On the other hand, they needed people to plow these many lands. There was a high rate of mortality, and we estimate that they would need two births so they could get an adult man to work and pay their taxes. To this we have to deduct the high number of priests who retired from the world as a consequence of the great existing religion.

This hypothesis, with its two different aspects, would explain this obsession with sex, and aligns with the scenes of women giving birth. It would also be a way of encouraging people to procreate, constantly showing multiple kinds of sexual relationships.


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