The Green Man

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The Green Man
Variations on a theme

Ruth Wylie

‘The Green Man’, a name coined by Lady Raglan in 1939, is a mediaeval image usually found in churches. Carved in stone or wood, depicted on stained glass, illuminated manuscripts and where else, he can be recognized as a face, often grotesque, with foliage sprouting from his mouth, nose, eyes or ears. Alternatively, he may be a face composed entirely of leaves. Exterior or interior, he features on capitals, corbels, choir stalls, bench ends, fonts, screens, roof bosses - indeed, any surface open to ornamentation.

The earliest known examples are in the art of Classical Rome, from where the idea seems to have moved northwards, to be adopted by Christianity and spread far and wide along the pilgrimage routes. The Green Man vanished with the ‘Old Faith’ after the Reformation. By the time of his reappearance, on seventeenth century memorials and eighteenth century Scottish gravestones, the emphasis had shifted, the purpose redirected. For the Victorians, he played a major role in their church restorations and as a decorative motif on street architecture. Even today, when he enjoys a revival, his significance can be manipulated to suit our particular needs. The imagery has captured the imagination of modern artists working in various media. Surely change and development guarantees his survival!

However, the mighty questions of who, what and why - the search for a meaning behind the symbol - have no answer yet. The lack of substantial evidence leaves the significance open to individual interpretation. This unknown quality makes the study so exciting! What a wide range of moods the Green Men express, which invite equally varied responses. Let the Green Man hold on to his secrets, remain a mystery, for therein lies his power. Like a god who has many facets in one, he gathers all unto himself and his strength is assured.


The Green Man

Sixteenth century gilded roof boss, Priory church of St Mary & St Cuthbert, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire.

A community of Augustinian canons settled here in this beautiful situation above the River Wharfe in 1154, but was continually beset by turbulent fortunes. Even a bribe could not spare the priory from dissolution and the monks were finally driven out in 1539. Only the nave remains intact, still in use as the parish church. The roof is a Tudor replacement, installed about this time. What a splendid boss where a leaf twisting from a single eye to frame the face and another from one side of the mouth is most unusual.


The Green Man

Fourteenth century sedilia spandrel, St Martin's, Thompson, Norfolk.

A college of priests was founded here in 1349, which explains the richly decorated sedilia in a rural church. There are Green Men in three spandrels, each featuring a different species of foliage. Specific plants did not appear until the late thirteenth century, when the typically English oak, hawthorn, ivy, etc. asserted themselves. Do the curious chequered sacks beneath his chin represent fir cones or grapes? (There are similar motifs on a corbel in Ripon Minster.)


The Green Man

Twelfth century capital underneath tower, St Michael's, Melbourne, Derbyshire.

Although 'The Green Man' and 'Sheela-na-Gig' are often supportive neighbours on a Norman church, a composite carving is unusual. Does this intimacy infer a liaison promoting fertility, both of the land and its people? But do we interpret their unity as a celebration, a supplication or a timely warning!


The Green Man

Fifteenth century capital in nave, St Swithun's, Woodbury, Devon.

'Green Men' vehemently defend their cause from all four corners of this gorgeous capital, linked by foliage between ears and mouths. What of the sprightly lizard snaffling fruit? Has he lost direction since the serpents of earlier centuries? Beasts writhe from the mouth at St Gabriel-Brecy, France and a corbel on the old Coventry cathedral. Foliage from the ears occurs again at Shirwell, North Devon.


The Green Man

Fifteenth century misericord, Holy Trinity, Wysall, Nottinghamshire.

A jovial forthright character!


The Green Man

Font, c.1160, St Mary's, Stottesdon, Shropshire.

'Green cats' were a popular device for sculpture in the twelfth century. This choice suggests a strong influence drawn from illuminated manuscripts, where the animals served as mainsprings for foliate scrolls and swirling interlaced patterns. Romanesque sculpture of this area compares with its counterpart in Saintonge, France, which indicates regular communication at this time between craftsmen on either side of the Channel. Linked cats form a border around the font at Lullington, Somerset.


The Green Man

Mid-sixteenth century chancel screen, Marwood, Devon.

This section is all that remains of an elaborate screen donated by Sir John Beaupul, who was rector here in 1520. Alas, a later rector wantonly destroyed the rest. This single Renaissance masterpiece displays several variations on the theme, including leaf masks, foliage from the mouth and strings of beads. There are more leaf mask panels on the screen at Ugborough, Devon, with traces of the original paint. Imagine what a dazzling blaze of colour our churches must have been, an overwhelming spectacle to folk accustomed to drab simplicity at home.


The Green Man

Nineteenth century arm rest, chancel, St Helen's, Leverton, Lincolnshire.

How well this face simulates a mood of painful resignation often expressed in mediaeval work, but the sharp edges are clues indicating a Victorian imitation. Foliage streaming from the tear ducts is unusual.


The Green Man

Early fifteenth century 'poppy head' finial on choir stalls, St Mary's, Nantwich, Cheshire.

'Poppy-heads' (from the French word 'poupees') are finials to bench ends, which rise prominently above the stalls. From this elevation, 'Green Men' reign, proudly supervising the action in every direction. They carry authority; who can escape their penetrating gaze? There are fine examples in Chester and Wakefield cathedrals, but this striking figure-head is the king of them all (there are few distinctly female examples).


The Green Man

Nineteenth century corbel in nave, St Peter's, Codford, Wiltshire.

What fun the Victorian carver had in creating this fanciful arrangement of leaves and flowers. Is my imagination running wild, or can you also see the face therein?


The Green Man

Tomb of Sir William Sharington (died 1553), Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire.

Built originally for a community of Augustinian nuns, Sir William Sharington bought Laycock Abbey in 1539 for £783, and converted the building into a stately mansion. Fortunately, he spared the original chapter house, sacristy and vaulted cloisters, the latter supporting fine bosses, including several Green Men. Although portraits exist of Sir William, they bear no resemblance to these profiles, which discounts portraiture. Heads with leaves for hair enhance memorials at Sparsholt, Oxfordshire and Winchester Cathedral.


The Green Man

Stained glass window, St Bartholomew's, Brightwell Baldwin, Oxfordshire.

Such a dynamic, lively head! This is but a fragment of a now-lost complete scene. Too long to be a tongue, surely these are flowers from the dog's mouth? Pieces of earlier glass, presumably salvaged from elsewhere in the church, have been re-used at random to frame the arms of a seventeenth century rector and bishop of Oxford, Richard Corbett. There are few surviving examples of Green Men in glass. St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol and Nantwich, Cheshire are other notable examples.


The Green Man

Twelfth century capital fragment from Hyde Abbey cloisters, now on display in St Batholomew's church, Winchester.

Members of the Saxon royal family were interred here. A Benedictine nunnery moved to Hyde from its original site next the present cathedral, but destroyed 40 years later in a disastrous fire which ravaged the city in 1141. This is one of several remarkable capitals which may have survived the blaze, to be incorporated in the rebuilding of 1182. Note the curious balls gripped between their teeth. Carved on another of the capitals here is an inverted 'green cat'.


The Green Man

Seventeenth century font cover, St James the Apostle, Swimbridge, Devon.

At first glance looking like another pulpit, the Renaissance canopy and cover rests on elaborate panels which completely enclose the font. The human flowers are perfectly delightful, an idea repeated on bench ends elsewhere in the West Country. Similar 'strings of beads' trail from the mouths of faces on the screen at Marwood, Devon and on a bench end at Spaxton, Somerset. How charming is the rector's suggestion that they could be 'bubbles' indicating speech or song!


I am most grateful to local historians and all the clergy for their permission to reproduce my photographs and for their kindness in taking so much trouble on my behalf to provide historical details. Many thanks to Peter Poyntz-Wright, the expert on Somerset bench ends, who launched me on the Green Man trail and shared his knowledge of viticulture. A big thank you to Kathleen Basford, whose original book prompted the current surge of interest in the subject. Her continuing support and encouragement is my inspiration. Indeed, how thankful I am to all friends and fellow hunters who share the fun and join me on the search! Last but not least, he who drives me the length and breadth of the country, James, my patient, long-suffering husband, we understand the infinite diversity of expression within the broad label ‘Green Man’!

Originally published in At the Edge No.4 1996.

Copyright 1996, 1997, 2001, 2002. No unauthorised copying or reproduction except if all following conditions apply:
a: Copy is complete (including this copyright statement).
b: No changes are made.
c: No charge is made.

At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /
Created August 1996; updated May 2002.

The Spirit and Flesh Sacred Texts Online Library: world religion and spirituality, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Gnosticism, Alchemy, Paganism, and more.