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Wednesday 16 July 2014

Revisiting the Green Man - a mysterious image from the past

The Green Man is a face that can be seen in many old churches and stately homes throughout northern Europe. The face has several basic forms, but is either made up of leaves, is sprouting leaves from eyes, ears and/or mouth or is sometimes simply a face peering out through vegetation, like these ones at St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol:

Mike Harding, in his Little book of the Green Man, points out that the name 'Green Man' was probably first used by Lady Raglan in 1939. We don't know what the medieval carvers who produced some of the finest examples would have called these faces.

We don't really know what they mean either, but the images are so powerful that they have persisted through time. They even, in many cases, escaped the stupid vandalism done to British church art by the Puritans.

In The Hidden World of Misericords, Dorothy and Henry Kraus suggest 'That so much underseat carving should have survived Protestant iconoclasm was no doubt due in large measure to the prevailingly secular subject matter'. These foliate faces are not obviously portraying Christian religious ideas either, which may be the reason that we can still appreciate so many of them today whether carved as misericords, roof bosses or elsewhere.

Hayman, in 'Church Misericords and Bench Ends' says that green men have 'often been misinterpreted as an indigenous pagan deity or as a spirit of nature. In fact green men represent sin and mortality.'

The Green Man also seems to hold a special fascination for carvers. In Understanding Woodcarving, John Foyle comments 'You may think we have enough of that fraternity around already. And, yes, the woodcarving world is certainly not short of pre-Christian sylvan dieties, or foliate men as they are sometimes called'. But the design is so strange and its origins so mysterious that carvers keep returning to it. In The Green Man: The Pitkin Guide, Jeremy Harte says that 'The Green Man was always a carver's device, whether in wood or stone. It is rare to find him in jewellery, illuminated books or stained glass'. Master carver Chris Pye, for one, has spoken of his fascination with the subject.

Similar faces can be seen carved on temples in India and there are even green cats, lions and snakes. In St John's chapel in St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol, there is an animal sprouting leaves from its mouth hidden amongst the medieval roof bosses.

Image from
As with many such images, it's a bit hard to tell what kind of animal it is: Mike Harding thinks it is a dog, Jerry Sampson (in an interesting architectural report on these bosses) thinks it is more like a cow. Here is a more recent green dog carved on the end of a pew in St Newlyn's church in Cornwall:

Many Green Man faces are quite obviously men, with beards etc. but I haven't heard of many carvings of a Green Woman. Jeremy Harte also makes this point; 
'The real Green Lady, with foliage sprouting from her face or mouth, is hardly ever seen (although there is one at Sampford Courtenay church in Devon). At Kings Nympton church, also in Devon, there is a series of heads: all the male ones are Green Men, but none of the female heads are Green Ladies.'  
I wonder why?

Recently, I've been reworking a green man face carved in oak for 'Mayfest' in Bristol. It was okay, but didn't look exactly how I wanted it to, so I decided to recarve the eyes, nose and mouth. It was an interesting challenge, carving some fairly deep detail into an oak board only 10mm (25/64 inch) thick without going through. Here's how the face now looks:

green man

This green man's face was carved on-and-off over four years from 1998 to 2002. It is not made from wood, but instead from meerschaum, a kind of stone which is prized for use in making pipe bowls. The carving isn't finished, as it still needs to have finishing wax applied. I'd also like to carve a stem for it, probably from cherry wood.

meerschaum pipe bowl

meerschaum green man

My own favourite Green Man is one that can be found in Bamberg cathedral in Bavaria. It is possibly one of the most well-known Green Man designs and dates to around the mid-thirteenth century. Some friends have commented that they think that the face is scary and it certainly has something quite powerful about it. As Jeremy Harte says, 'often the most beautiful ones are the most sinister.'

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