The Green Man
There are many places where undisputed Green Men appear, and many people find him an intriguing figure. So why does he often appear in religious, and specifically Christian, settings all over Europe and even extending into parts of the Middle East and India?
The name ‘Green Man’ has been given to several different characters. Some link him with the woodwose, a wild man with a Club, possibly intended to be John the Baptist or Hercules. This figure appears on some Church fonts, e.g. at Stradbroks in Suffolk, and as a supporter (a figure at the side of the shield) in heraldry. In this form perhaps he symbolised the taming of strength. But the woodwose often appears shaggy and stupid, very different from the true Green Man.
On signs outside inns called ‘The Green Man’ he is often pictured as a kind of Robin Hood figure, sometimes alternatively named Jack-in-the-green or Jack-in-the-Tree.
Was he a Celtic fertility god, the beneficent spirit of vegetation, the tree spirit, still being built into churches after 1000 years of Christianity, and currently revived by people who love such places as Stonehenge, Tintagel, and Glastonbury with their associated legends?
On May Day, a day associated with the return of life, a Chimney Sweep sometimes became a living Green Man, being decked in a wicker frame decorated with leaves and flowers, and paraded around. Or a man was led through the fields as a token of aiding their fertility, and then symbolically drowned. By his death he was thought to make life-giving forces available to the village.
The annual Burry Man festival (see: http://rbg-web2.rbge.org.uk/celtica/Burry.htm) in the village of South Queensferry, Scotland, appears to be a living equivalent of the Green Man in much the same way as the Jack-in-the-Tree or Chimney Sweep mentioned above.
Such rites persisted well after the time many Christian churches were being built (and Green Men were being incorporated within them) for in 1540 Bishop Latimer was told in another town it was no good opening a church for a service because everybody was attending such ceremonies. Other accounts speak of the revellers entering Church to dance their rituals there, even when a service was already in progress. Priests disapproved, but people’s customs were strong and were often backed by the squire, so the parson had to keep quiet. Rogation Day Ceremonies, with their blessing of the fields, is probably a Christianisation of such activities.
However, the name ‘Green Man’ is best reserved for the figure who appears in one of three forms. He may be a human face peering through vegetation. He may be a face eating or disgorging vegetation. Or he may be e strange mixture of human form and vegetation merging into each other – a man whose limbs taper away to become vegetation.
His face often looks like those in some Roman sculptures, and even dates back centuries before that period. Were the craftsmen who decorated our churches merely amusing themselves by incorporating such faces? When one recalls that many churches, such Rosslyn Collegiate Church, were in rural settings it is hardly surprising that such manifestations of rural folklore were reflected in such buildings.
But such an explanation hardly accounts for the deliberate use of the Green Man in more important and widespread Christian centres. He appears in Southwell Minster, in the cathedrals at Norwich and Ely and Exeter, in the screens of St Paul’s Cathedral London and King’s College Chapel Cambridge – to name but a few. Michaelangelo put one on a pope’s tomb. Martin Luther’s books, printed in his own lifetime, include the Green Man on the title page. In one church a Virgin and Child stand on a Green Man’s head. In another he watches over the body of Christ in an Easter Sepulchre. He often appears near scenes of the Creation, Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection. The famous cathedral at Chartres has more than forty in its magnificent west front (the royal portal) alone and many more in a large number of other places. This great cathedral has literally thousands of sculptured pictures, all wry carefully co-ordinated into a well-structured programme unfolding Biblical and other Christian events. It is inconceivable that the Green Man crept in as a pagan figure or merely a mason’s whim and seems that he had become a perfectly acceptable Christian symbol. Indeed, his facial expression often chimes in with the scene portrayed, e.g. a same of expectation at the coming or Jesus, or of delight at his victory. What is his significance?
Many suggestions have been made, and this brief article cannot do more than mention a few. In classical thought the Green Man has been the symbol of inspiration or of the fruits of learning, and could have a place in Christian iconography for such a reason.
His presentation as one who devours and disgorges vegetation suggests the mystery of creation – death and rebirth in the world of nature, a theme which illustrates Christian teaching on the death and resurrection of Christ.
He may represent the bringing of the tree spirit or spirit of nature under the guidance of Christ, in the way that many pagan ideas and rituals have been baptised into Christianity – a common practice in the attempt to lead people from other beliefs into the Christian Faith.
This last thought might go even further, possibly linking with the other figure in the church porch vaulting. That figure is presumably Jesus, the wreath on his brow perhaps representing the crown of thorns. But has he, too, vegetation around his head? Is this merely decoration, as often appears on vault bosses? Or is there another possibility? Christ, the Logos (the Word) has been equated with the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Also, Christian thought claims that the act of creation was performed through the pre-existent Christ. When the writer of the book quoted below was shown this face he raised the suggestion that it might be to do with the Spirit, the Creator Spirit, being revealed through created things.
The Green Man has a special meaning today. After centuries of man’s exploitation of nature for his own benefit, as if mankind is the only creature that counts, we are now beginning to realise how dependent we are upon the natural world, that we are part and parcel of the whole of G-d’s creation, and therefore must learn to work in co-operation with it. The Green Man, especially in his strange structure blending the human form and vegetation, can be taken to symbolise the unity of mankind with the natural world. Perhaps it is not surprising that he should have a place in Christian Churches of all types for when they were built mankind was much closer to nature than we are, at least in the industrialised western world.
Given that we now know for certain that Rosslyn Chapel was built by the St Clair family specifically as a Christian edifice it seems clear that the Green Men within the chapel were, by 1446, no longer pagan but had been adopted as a Christian symbol