Finding the Green Man in the Churches of Europe

The next time you find yourself in a European church or cathedral, there is someone you should see. Forget “The DaVinci Code”. A real puzzle stares at you from the walls, architecture, and furnishings throughout these old places of worship. The mysterious Green Man, a carved foliate face from ancient times, appears in various guises and apparently independently, all over the world. His best known and most accessible incarnations are found – by the thousands – in the Medieval churches of Europe and in England, France and Germany, in particular.

The title “Green Man” was given by Lady Raglan about seventy years ago, when she was the first to identify the common concept in a number of traditional strands, mythology, folklore, folk customs, traditional imagery, in the ancient idea of the “wild man”, and the English inn name, “The Green Man”, which she used as the title for this unifying idea. The essential basis of the Green Man is that there is a unity between humanity and nature, and that humanity thrives better when it lives in harmony with nature, something which is explicitly understood at the present time. It must be admitted that no direct link can be demonstrated between the various strands embraced by the Green Man idea, other than that they are all driven by an archetypal element in the human mentality.

The concept makes its earliest appearance in ancient mythology, and then recurs throughout history, and is most conveniently examined in the folk customs of England and mainland Europe, and in the images in the churches. In England, the Green Man, in his guise known as “Jack-in-the-Green”, may be seen on the first Monday in May in folk celebrations in Hastings and Rochester, as well as elsewhere, including in London, but also in the “Garland Day” celebrated in Castleton in Derbyshire on May 29th. In these, a man is encased in leaves (at Castleton, flowers) and plays out some elements of a traditional sacrificial drama. The ancient association is with the renewal of life in Spring, so here the Green Man is a symbol of regeneration.

He is also associated with other strands of imagery found in Medieval churches, the wild man, and the “sheela-na-gig”, a female fertility image given a mock Celtic name, probably in the demure Nineteenth Century. The wild man is an image of primitive humanity, but in the churches symbolises also the primitive in all of us. The sheela-na-gig image is a large and separate subject, but it is plainly also related to regeneration.

In all the traditions, the image is that of a man associated with foliage – very, very, rarely that of a woman. This is seen as arising from ancient mythology of the Mother Goddess sending her son, who is both divine and human, to help humanity with what it needs (not what it wants!), and in many of these myths, the son is in some way associated with a tree.

In the churches, the image is a face, almost always male, with leaves: the leaves springing from it, or forming the face, or branching out from the face, or surrounding the face as if it were the fruit of the tree. There are a few which are clearly female, notably at Ulm in Germany and Brioude in France, but otherwise they are all male. The source of the image in the Medieval church was almost certainly foliate faces in Roman sculpture, of which very fine examples survive in the archaeological museum in Trier, but the Medieval Green Man soon outclassed his Roman ancestor. He survived the end of the Middle Ages, and is found in the work of Michelangelo, in English Georgian houses, in Mexican Baroque churches, and in New York brownstone facades.

In the churches, the Green Man is found in his thousands, almost always just watching, and rarely participating in action, although there is one group in York Minster where a wild man is apparently protecting a Green Man from a demon, an image of fascinating psychological implications. There are a few Green Man images that point to a didactic role, the Green Man helping us to behave better, a role explicitly illustrated by four green men on a column capital in the village of Woodbury, near Exeter.

In most examples, the Green Man merely observes. Across Europe, he can be found beside every major event in New Testament iconography, watching, but rarely reacting, although in Freiberg-im-Breisgau the green men appear to be weeping beside the tomb of Christ. This watching role has suggested that the Green Man can also symbolise immanent Divinity, present everywhere and at all times, observing the divine drama of life.

It has to be said that all that has been articulated about the Green Man has been said in the last seventy years, and most of it in the last thirty. Nothing at all on the subject has been found from earlier times: earlier illustrations of Medieval sculpture simply do not identify the image at all, and nothing has been found on the subject from the Middle Ages itself. And yet, after people and angels, this is the most common image in Medieval sculpture, with many cathedrals containing dozens of green men, and a few a hundred or more. Interest in the subject is recent, and part of its attraction is the fact that anyone may stumble upon a Green Man image that was previously unknown.

A few years ago I visited the church in an English market town in the hope of finding one of these images. I searched the church, and eventually, in the furthest corner, I found one, hidden behind and between some carved foliage at shoulder level. A man of retirement age who was working in the church enquired about my interest, and when I told him I had found a Green Man, he responded with “Never! Show me!” When he saw it, he said “I have worshipped in this church since I was boy in the choir, and no one has ever seen that before. Wait till I tell the Vicar – I bet he gives us a sermon on it.”

Everyone has their own favourites, but there is some agreement that the Green Man under the platform of the famous mounted knight in Bamberg Cathedral in Germany is perhaps the best of all. The face is beautifully formed out of foliage, and he looks at us with great intensity. Another German cathedral with notable green men is that at Naumberg, while good examples can be found all over France, but perhaps the cathedrals of Le Mans, Poitiers, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges and Chartres can be singled out. Of course green men can also be found in Italy, Belgium, Holland, Spain and other European countries.

Green men are very common in English Medieval churches, and in the Victorian churches as well. Not every church has carvings, some are quite austere, but in those with carvings, there is considerable likelihood of finding a Green Man or several, carved in stone or wood, and occasionally represented in the stained glass. Some of the cathedrals are very well endowed; Exeter, Winchester, Norwich and Ely, for example, are four of the loveliest of English cathedrals. In Norwich, the whole passion cycle in the cloister is wreathed in foliage and peopled with wonderful green men, beautifully painted, and Exeter Cathedral, the essence of English Gothic genius, has about seventy fine green men. Gloucester Catheral is especially proud of its Green Man Collection, devoting a page of its website to the image.

Green men populate English parish churches across the country, but very notably in Devon and Cornwall. Perhaps the finest of English green men is in the small parish church of Sutton Benger, near Chippenham in Wiltshire, an extremely elaborate carving in the Decorated Gothic style, with a Green Man exuding branches of Hawthorn, including a number of birds eating the berries. The finest of English foliage carving is a Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire, and this, naturally, includes a good number of green men.

These are but a few of the many green men in English churches. There are many more in other architecture, including Nineteenth Century commercial and civic buildings, as are found elsewhere in the world. A book has recently been published including green men of Des Moines, and another of New York. The green man is now available all over the world in modern imagery – plaques, pottery, illustrations and other representations.

Somewhere, on your travels in Europe, you are likely to come under the eye of a foliate head gazing down at you. Watch for the Green Man, he’s watching you!

Reprinted by permission and from Travel Research Online.

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About the author: Clive Hicks

Clive Hicks was born in South Africa but has lived in London for almost fifty years. He is an architect, photographer, lecturer, and author, and previously had a brief professional career in ballet. He has illustrated many books, in particular William Anderson's pivotal book "Green Man - The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth" (HarperCollins) and has written his own on the same subject "The Green Man - A Field Guide" (CompassBooks).

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