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The Green Man

There is no simple, straightforward explanation for the Green Man.  He has been present in eastern and western art, in different religions and cultures, since at least Roman times, though his heyday in western art was in Britain, France and Germany in the Middle Ages.  A man or spirit inhabiting the woods peers out through the leaves of trees, a figure to be worshipped or feared.  He has been absorbed into so many different belief systems that his meaning or purpose has changed over the centuries.  He has meant different things to different peoples at different times and continues to do so into the twenty-first century.

He is shown as a face sprouting leaves, sometimes just surrounded by them, sometimes made from them.  Often called a foliate mask, he was given the title of Green Man by Lady Raglan in an article she wrote in 1939 for the Folklore journal called The Green Man in Church Architecture.  He is frequently interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, of the spring, bringing the promise of a good harvest, and nowadays he offers the hope of a good recovery from illness.  However, he can also be read as a memento mori, particularly when sprouting foliage from the eyes and ears. He illustrates the interdependence of man and nature, that he, in common with the seasons, will live, give life and die.

In carving the Green Man can be naturalistic, looking like a man, or he can be merely a stylised leaf-mask design; he can also appear as a Green Beast with an animal rather than a human head.  Some carvings are charming and benign, others more threatening, seemingly with a power to disrupt and do harm.  

They were all absorbed into the Christian tradition and decorate a great number of medieval churches, as capitals, corbels, gargoyles and bosses.  All congregations would have welcomed any idea of a successful harvest and abundant crops as a subconscious response to the carvings, but the church also used grotesques in general as an example of passions and desires that needed to be overcome by the Christian.  The carver might have relished creating mythical beasts, demons, mermaids and Green Men but they also served a moral purpose to discourage the community from sin.  It is probable that by the 16th and 17th centuries Green Men had less symbolic meaning than in earlier times and were just a decorative motif when used on furniture and in domestic settings.  However, in Elizabethan Britain after the Reformation there was a Protestant drive for agricultural productivity with the result that dominion over nature became an ideal, which may explain the continued popularity of the Green Man motif.

The Green Men who spew out leaves from their mouths are known as disgorgers.

Nos. 1-7 are Disgorgers.  

Nos. 1-5 are English.

No. 4  is a medieval roof boss with original stained decoration.

Nos. 6 & 7 are both Continental.  

No. 7 is part of an altar rail, illustrating the way the motif was absorbed into the Church.

No. 8 is the Green King, the god of the woods.

Nos. 9-12 are Green Beasts.  

No. 9 is a spandrel in a piece of Gothic tracery. 

No. 11 a fish-like beast disgorging leaves along the length of a beam.

No.s 13-17 are the Threateners, the fierce, menacing type.  When part of church woodwork they have been "captured", forced into submission and the service of the church by upholding its structure.

Nos. 18-25 are the Benevolent type.  

No. 24 is surrounded by hops on what is probably a Kentish panel, illustrating the close relationship with local agriculture.  

No. 25 is French with a floral interest.

Nos. 26-29 are less quirky and individual than the previous examples.  By the end of the 16th century and into the 17th century the motif has become more standardized and probably exists as mere decoration.

No. 30 is a strange panel, the meaning of which is unclear.  A Green Man  at the top disgorges tendrils and two more are half-hidden centre left and right.  Five humans pull on the tendrils like bellringers pulling on ropes, a flower blooms and a solitary leaf floats.

No. 31 is a Green Beast with fern-like ears.

No. 32 a Green Man crouching in the undergrowth, stretching apart the buttons on his jacket.