The Enigma of the Green Man - History of the Green Man

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Roman Green Man (c. 1st or 2nd Century CE) in Musée de Vésone, Périgueux, Dordogne, France (photo Julianna Lees)

Roman Green Man (c. 1st or 2nd Century CE) in Musée de Vésone, Périgueux, Dordogne, France (photo Julianna Lees)

Although the Green Man is most often seen incorporated as a carved decorative ornamentation on European churches and other buildings, dating from the 11th Century right through to the 20th Century, these were not the first Green Men.

It was Roman artists and sculptors who first developed composite figures (such as those in Nero’s Golden House in Rome), as well as complex carvings of life-like intertwined vegetation. Roman architecture sometimes features ornate leaf masks, which are usually taken as showing the close interdependence between man and nature, and as describing the deities of Pan, Bacchus, Dionysus or Silvanus, and the mystery religions that grew up around them. A leaf-clad statue of Dionysus in Naples, Italy, dating back to about 420 BCE, is often considered one of the first Green Men images.

Indeed, Dionysus is often considered one of the most likely precursors to the Green Man of the Middle Ages, especially given his usual portrayal as leaf-crowned lord of the wilderness, nature and agriculture - it was only later that he became associated with wine, ecstasy and sexual abandon - and his parallel role (in the guise of Okeanus) as a god of the underworld, of death and rebirth. An acanthus-sprouting head of Okeanos (a Greek/Roman figure with links to Dionysus), dating to the 6th Century CE and found in the old Byzantine city of Mudanya, Turkey, appears to have served as a model for several later carvings in Europe.

However, there are similar figures represented in ancient cultures which had little or no Roman influence. The Mesopotamian Green Man carving at al-Hadr or Hatra (present-day Iraq) may date from as early as 300 BCE. A temple to Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon, dating from the 2nd Century CE, shows a full leaf-mask distinctly reminiscent of later Green Men. There are many examples of leaf masks from ancient Constantinople (such as those now kept in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul), although this appears not to have been a tradition carried on within the later Eastern church. Figures similar to the Green Man also appear in Borneo, Nepal and India, one of the earliest of which is a disgorging head which appears on an 8th Century CE Jain temple in Rajasthan, India.

Early Christian Period:

Disgorging Green Man on the tomb of St. Abre (c. 4th or 5th Century CE), now in the church of St.-Hilaire-le-Grand at Poitiers, France (photo Julianna Lees)

Disgorging Green Man on the tomb of St. Abre (c. 4th or 5th Century CE), now in the church of St.-Hilaire-le-Grand at Poitiers, France (photo Julianna Lees)

Early medieval Christianity adopted much of the symbolism of the Dionysian rites and mystery religions, and many of its architectural techniques were borrowed from Roman and Byzantine models. At the same time, another parallel influence in Western Europe was the Celtic “cult of the head” (the particular reverence the Celts had for portrayals of the human head, based on the belief that the head is the repository of the soul), and also the Celtic veneration of sacred trees.

Just as early statues of the Virgin Mary and her child (particularly the Black Madonnas which were popular in Europe in the early medieval period) were clearly variations of earlier representations of similar pagan myths (e.g. Isis and Horus, Cybele and Attis, Aphrodite and Adonis, etc), early portrayals of the Green Man were largely based on older models from antiquity. In an interesting cross-cultural exchange, some sculptures of leaf-masks were plundered from older Byzantine buildings and re-used intact in Christian churches, as seems to have occurred in Trier Cathedral in German in the 6th Century CE. However, other leaf masks at Trier (the oldest city in Germany) date back to the 2nd or 3rd Century CE.

Although the leaf-mask or foliate head had been copied since Roman times, perhaps the first example of the disgorging form of the Green Man occurs on the tomb of St. Abre, now in the church of St.-Hilaire-le-Grand at Poitiers, France, which is thought to date from the 4th or 5th Century CE. This type of Green Man image appears to have no real precedent in Roman or Celtic art (even the somewhat similar Indian disgorging head in Rajasthan actually dates from some three centuries later), and its origins are altogether more mysterious.

It is perhaps an indication of the Green Man’s power as an archetype that he was able to transfer so seamlessly from one culture and one set of beliefs to another. For example, many of the Green Man images that began to appear in the intricately illustrated Christian manuscripts of Ireland, such as the 8th Century “Book of Kells”, exhibit direct influences from Roman and Egyptian art, and some of these styles spread rapidly from there to much of the rest of Western Europe.

Gradually, then, over a period from roughly the 6th to 11th Century, a bridge was laid between the Green Man’s apparently pagan origins and the new context of Christian art, and he imperceptibly became absorbed into Christian iconography. What could be salvaged or used from the old pagan beliefs was co-opted by Christianity as far as possible, and what was considered too disruptive or dangerous was strenuously repressed. Although the popular practice of tree worship could not be permitted - many sacred trees and groves were cut down or torched by over-zealous priests during this period - the use of the image of the Green Man allowed a relatively safe nod towards the old practices, while at the same time bringing it under the umbrella of the new Church. To some extent, the Green Man became an instrument of harmony between the pagan past and the new Christian order.

Having said that, though, the number of occurrences of the Green Man during this period was relatively small, and the Dark Ages largely represents a time of abeyance for the Green Man phenomenon, almost as though he were biding his time until the conditions were right for his resurgence.

High and Late Middle Ages:

Green Man or Beast (c. 12th Century) in Church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England (photo Simon Garbutt)

Green Man or Beast (c. 12th Century) in Church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England (photo Simon Garbutt)

The heyday of the Green Man, though, only occurs after the first millennium CE, particularly the 12th to 15th Century. From the 11th and 12th Century onwards, Green Men are often seen incorporated as a carved decorative ornamentation on British, French, German and other European churches and other buildings (both ecclesiastical and, less commonly, secular).

There was a huge revival in ecclesiastical building during this period, in what was seen by many as a time of hope after the bleakness of the Dark Ages. But, critically, this was also a time of greatly increasing prosperity, during which the Church expanded its influence and its riches many-fold, and during which rich and powerful feudal lords were keen to ingratiate themselves with the mighty Church.

The intricate Romanesque and Gothic architecture of the High Middle Ages provided a perfect vehicle for the inclusion of all manner of oddities on church buildings. Grotesques of many kinds were introduced, superficially to exemplify passions and desires that pious men needed to overcome, and Green Men were perhaps just one example of the mythical beasts, demons and other pagan symbols which began to be licensed, even encouraged, by church builders of the time. Sheela-na-gigs (figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated open vulva, sometimes considered a Green Woman, the female counterpart of the Green Man) and sirens or mermaids with divided tails were just some of the other recurring motifs to be found along with the Green Man. The interwoven Romanesque leaf decorations provided an easy linking theme between such images, and some quite large-scale carvings of naked men and women caught up in the tendril of vegetation are found on major church buildings of the period (such as the cathedrals at Lincoln and Chartres, for example).

It was also around this time that exhibitionist figures, with exaggerated genitalia and indulging in all kinds of deviant sexual practices, began to crop up in Spanish, French and British churches, supposedly in an attempt to teach the deplorable effect of lust. In the wake of the Christian victories in the Crusades, many Muslim craftsmen began to be employed in church architecture and ornamentation (particularly in France and Spain, and especially in churches of the Cluniac order), bringing a Moorish influence and sensibility, and the Green Man is a notably popular figure in many of these buildings.

Around the 13th Century, the French style of foliate mask began to prevail, although the disgorging style of Green Man was more predominant in England. Both main types flourished thoughout France, Britain and Germany, though. Chartres Cathderal, widely considered one of the masterpieces of Western art, features up to 70 Green Men, in a whole variety of different forms, including leaf masks, disgorgers of vegetation, and human figures in the midst of plants and fruit.

Good examples of medieval Green Men can be found in cathedrals, abbeys, minsters and humble parish churches throughout Britain (particularly in rural counties like Devon, Somerset, Oxfordshire, Norfolk, etc), France and Germany. A selection of photos is included in the Photo Gallery of this website.

Early Modern History:

Bronze door bell in the form of a Green Man on the island of Murano, near Venice, Italy

Bronze door bell in the form of a Green Man on the island of Murano, near Venice, Italy

From the Renaissance onwards, the Green Man (and other variations including animals) began to appear with even greater regularity in manuscripts, metalwork, bookplates and stained glass, as well as in churches and cathedrals, although often for purely decorative effect. It seems that some of the symbolism had been lost by this time, and the Green Man had become more of a decorative motif than a symbolic one.

Interestingly, other than few examples of geuinely old Green Men in Milan, Bologna and the Bari area of southern Italy, there is relatively little Green Man imagery in the medieval and Gothic architecture of Italy, but with the Renaissance it finally makes an appearance. Mantegna, Donatello and Michelangelo all used the motif, including several examples in Michelangelo’s decoration of the Medici Chapel in Florence.

With the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, the Green Man experienced something of a new, and largely secular, resurgence, as he became associated (somewhat paradoxically) with the drive for productivity and dominion over Nature. His image appeared on furnishings, embroideries, panelling, chimneypieces, and even on cannons and pistols. At times the images verge on the caricature, such as Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s famous portraits of the Emperor Rudolph II composed entirely of fruits and vegetables.

The advent of mass-produced printed works saw his image used on the title plates of many books, from Bibles to theological treatises to secular works. There are several 16th Century pictures apparently associating Martin Luther in particular with the foliate head of the Green Man, and many of his works published in Wittenberg bear the image of the Green Man on their title pages. References, albeit largely indirect, appeared in the written works of Rabelais, Shakespeare, Milton and Marvell.

The Green Man continued to appear in English architecture in the 16th and 17th Century, such as at King’s College in Cambridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Tewkesbury Abbey, and in country churches like those at Shepton Mallet and High Bickington. He received a minor boost in popularity with the story of Charles II’s escape and sanctuary in the “Royal Oak”. The Green Man became a popular name for English pubs in the 17th Century (when the Distiller’s Company Green Man and Still heraldic arms were in common use), although most inn signs tended to depict a forester, a wild man or even Robin Hood, rather than the traditional Green Man of Church architecture. But the frequency of his appearances during this period is certainly much reduced compared to earlier centuries and, arguably, some of the depth of symbolic meaning has been lost by this time.

Modern Era:

A 12m tall sculpture of a Green Man by Tawny Gray (Toin Adams) at the Custard Factory, Birmingham, England

A 12m tall sculpture of a Green Man by Tawny Gray (Toin Adams) at the Custard Factory, Birmingham, England (from

The Green Man largely disappeared during the Neo-Classical period and Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Century, although this time also saw the rise in popularity of the related figure of Jack-in-the-Green at May Day festivities (rather mysteriously, with a particular association with chimney sweeps in the early years). Leaf-covered Green or Wild Men had been appearing in town pageants for centuries, possible as live representations of the Green Man of church architecture, but the first attested appearance of Jack-in-the-Green was as recent as 1775.

Indeed, one might have expected the Green Man to disappear completely in this age of science and rationality, and for a time he seemed to have done just that. But he never entirely faded away. The motif gained some renewed popularity with the Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts movements of 19th Century Britain, as well as in America and the British colonies during this same period. The Victorian version of the Green Man makes an appearance on many important building such as the Palace of Westminster, St. David’s Cathedral and in re-carvings on some Oxford and Cambridge colleges. The Green Man has continued to make appearances in more modern architecture and design, from brick-built terraced houses and suburban villas to pubs, banks, factories and other commercial buildings.

The Green Man has also become a popular figure in modern art of various kinds, from Paul Sivell’s Whitefield Green Man wood carving, to David Eveleigh’s Penpoint Green Man Millennium Maze, to Tawny Gray’s 12m tall Green Man sculpture in Birmingham, to M.J. Anderson’s marble sculptures, and the Australian Graham Wilson’s Banksia Man sculpture. He has appeared in many modern paintings and illustrations (such as in the art of Brian Froud, Peter Pracownik, John Piper, Rob Juszak, Jane Brideson, Alan Caiger-Smith, Dorothy Bowen, Monica Richards, among others), and even in full-body tattoos.

Many modern Neo-Pagan, New Age and Wiccan organizations and practitioners have incorporated the Green Man into their artwork and symbology, and he is sometimes used as a representation of the Horned God (which is itself a syncretic deity inclusive of several ancient pagan gods such as the Celtic Cernunnos and the Greek Pan).

In recent years, the environmental or Green movement and various other campaigns and commercial organizations have also latched onto (some might say hijacked) the Green Man as a marketing tool, and he has begun to emerge once more as something approaching an environmental icon, as can be seen from the variety of companies and organizations taking advantage of his image (see the section on The Green Man in Popular Culture for some examples).

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