, , , , , , , , , , ,

The image you sent me [image 1, above, from the Hems collection at RAMM] – a face carved in wood, disgorging foliage, with staring, intense eyes, and unsettlingly well-defined teeth,  is what we know as a ‘Green Man’. Here, the sheen of the polished wood makes the face appear almost oily – especially on the forehead with its receding hairline. The foliage by the temples and in front of the beard are certainly much more luxuriant than the hair, whilst the staring eyes and aggressive grin almost make you forget what is coming out of his mouth. Flesh and humanity are emphasized here, but they are also challenged by the intimate interpenetration of life forms: the foliage coming out of the man peering out of the foliage, all of which is carved out of wood.

Images 2 and Image 3. Left: Green Man roof boss, Brant Broughton, Lincs One of many Green Man bosses on this beautifully painted and gilded medieval roof. Right: Fullbrook, Oxfordshire, nave beam Green Man. One of three Green Men carved on wooden roof beams. He looks as though he can’t believe what is sprouting from his mouth! All rights reserved by tinanegus.

Green Men irresistibly and ironically explore and strain against the dynamic oppositions between burgeoning life and the image frozen in time, between the created object and the acting seeing subject. However quickly you notice him: he is already looking at you. Hidden by foliage, shadow and distance (if he was a roof boss on a ceiling), yet apparently bursting from the restrictions of form, convention and decorum, he is an alarming object who is far from passive, but rather looks (and bites?) right back at the viewer.

Image 4. Sometimes the green men menacing, aggressive. Others they’re eerily blank and staring. Sometimes they’re funny, grotesque. Others they’re horrifyingly disgorging or impaled by snake – or worm-like greenery. Still others, they’re gloriously radiating their foliage.

Though representations of foliate faces can be found in antiquity, the term ‘Green Man’ is much more recent. It was coined on the eve of the Second World War by Lady Raglan in her highly influential article, ‘The Green Man in Church Architecture’ (Folklore 50, March 1939). Since then, numerous websites, books, pamphlets and reproductions testify to the popularity of this figure. Numerous pubs bear his name. There is a Green Man independent summer music festival. Embracing a non-corporate ethic, this festival aligns itself with the Green Man, seen as a liminal figure, whose alternative perspective from the margins, can surprise, challenge and comment on the people and institutions (positioned in the ‘centre’) who are understood to engineer and order the structures of society. Contemporary Green Men are often represented with high spirits and humor. A particularly splendid incarnation in the form of a Dad in fancy dress made an appearance at a school May Fair recently. A celebration of Nature, of Renewal and Rebirth, and of a Life Force, are often perceived in Green Men. The popularity and the perceptions of the Green Man say at least as much about the needs and hopes of people in our post-industrial-revolution, secular society as they do about these surprising carvings.

Image 5 and Image 6. Left: ‘A scan from a 35mm transparency which I took at Dore Abbey, the former Cistercian abbey at Abbey Dore, Herefordshire, England in 1989. It shows a small woodcarving, low down on a side of the 17th century Renaissance screen, of a foliate mask or “Green Man”‘. Copyright: Simon Garbutt: Right: Leicester Revealed Owston Abbey ‘Green Man’, Approx 15th century AD. During the Middle Ages – also known as the Medieval period – around 800 years ago (AD 1066 – 1539), religious centres such as monasteries, abbeys, friaries and priories were important parts of society. As well as being places where people devoted their lives to the worship of God, they were also centres of learning and culture. Many of them became important economic centres and their leaders were often involved in the political life of the country. Different religious Orders set up their own centres. For example, the Augustinians had a priory at Ulverscroft, a nunnery at Grace Dieu, and an abbey in Leicester. The Cistercians had an important abbey at Garendon near Loughborough. There were three friaries in Leicester. Owston Abbey was also an Augustinian foundation, beginning in the late 12th century. This wooden ‘Green Man’ carving came from the screen in the Abbey church. It was cut out during renovations in the 19th century. The ‘Green Man’ has a long and interesting history as it appears in both non-Christian and Christian traditions. The Green Man has been associated with seasonal rebirth and renewal and as such transferred easily into Christian imagery. Object Location: Charnwood Museum On display

Image 7. This Green Man in Norwich Cathedral, in Norfolk, is in the style called ‘the foliate head’, in which the shape of the face changes imperceptibly into leaves. Villard de Honnecourt, the 13th-century master mason who kept a notebook of designs, calls this the tête de feuilles. The most ingenious form of this design is the leaf mask, in which the face is composed entirely of leaves, curled and crisped to resemble human features, perhaps with eyes and a mouth added.

Our image here [image 1] is neither idealized nor – quite – a grotesque, but Green Men can be either. The term is now often used for any figure – usually a face and usually a carving – uncannily appearing from or meshed with foliage. Very frequently they have the piercing, pointedly staring gaze that this one demonstrates.

Image 8 and Image 9. Left: Pembrokeshire. Fifteenth-century wood carving of The Green Man taken from the roof of St. Mary’s Church, Haverfordwest during a Victorian restoration. The museum has a number of other fascinating medieval wood carvings. Right: ‘This carving, dated 1483, appears on the keystone of a window in the Chapel of the Nine Altars at Fountains Abbey, in North Yorkshire. The Green Man faces outwards, and there is an angel on the inside. He is in pain, not just because he is being strangled by a twining plant (which looks like honeysuckle) but because he is being squeezed and twisted in the deformation of the arch. In fact the keystone was inserted by masons to prevent the original structure from collapse.’

They may be regally crowned (like the corbel ‘May King’ in Exeter Cathedral – image 16), radiating gilded foliage like organic suns (like the boss from Norwich Cathedral, image 7), but they may also be monstrous and menacing or in agonizing pain (Exeter Cathedral images 12, 14 and 15). They may appear to be mocking, and they may even appear to be dead (images 8-11). A surprising number of Green Men borrow forms and designs from transi (or ‘cadaver’) tombs which show the body in the process of decomposition (Abbey of St. Vaast, Arras, France, image 11). In these, vines and tendrils resemble worms or snakes.

Image 10. “This is a scan from a transparency which I took in the mid 1970s at Shebbear in Devon, England. It shows a gravestone with a carved skull sprouting flowering vines, perhaps a symbol of resurrection.’ Copyright: Simon Garbutt.

The carving from St. Mary’s Church, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire – image 8 – unusually portraying closed eyes, emphasises the lifelessness of the face. A headstone from Shebbear, Devon, (image 10) shows a skull similarly intertwined with vines. Here the skull seems, paradoxically, full of assertive, grim agency in contrast with the apparently harmless flowers.

Image 11. 15th Century cadaver tomb, Abbey of St. Vaast, Arras, France.

I’ve also included two images (17 and 18) from Exeter Cathedral which do not seem to me to portray men. We should be careful not to allow the terminology to flatten or oversimplify our perspective of Green Men,  few of which are green, not all of which are men but which participate in a remarkable, arresting and varied motif.

Image 12 and Image 13. Photo –N. Howell January and April, 2012.

As I was trying to articulate what I find particularly fascinating about Green Men, I came across Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ (Haraway, 1991), and was amazed at how much of what I found could be said of Green Men.

Image 14 and Image 15.

Green men, like Cyborgs, inhabit the ambiguous space between ‘natural and artificial… self-developing and externally designed’. ‘Creature[s] of social reality as well as a creature[s] of fiction’ (Haraway 1991: 149), Green Men, like Cyborgs, seem ‘resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.’ (Haraway 1991: 151).

Image 16 and Image 17. All rights reserved by Sheepdog Rex

‘Certain dualisms have been persistent in Western traditions; they have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination […] of all constituted as others, whose task is to mirror the self. Chief among these troubling dualisms are self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/ made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man’ (Haraway 1991: 178).

Image 18. 


Haraway, D. (1991) “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York; Routledge.

NB texts in italics are citations from creative commons sites. Please contact us if you wish to your name or image to be cited in any other way.