Susan Hegedus explores how this mysterious figure found his way into Catholic churches
The once Catholic medieval churches found throughout Britain are frequently inhabited by a mysterious carving of an ancient male head, with foliage emerging from various parts of the face or covering it completely. He has many guises and is concealed in roofs, and sometimes barely discernible on walls and fonts. Many appear disguised and a casual eye might easily overlook them.
bi 1939 folklorist Lady Raglan brought this imagery to public attention by giving this inexplicable bodiless effigy a name. She coined the term "Green Man". Up until then the Green Man had been dismissed by historians and architects as "leaf foliage" or a "grotesque face".
But how did the Green Man find his way into Catholic churches? Leaf masks appeared in Roman art during the first century AD and also decorated tombs. These earliest designs had the familiar mournful expression and staring eyes of their future medieval descendants. But the earliest example of a Green Man in a church is in Trier Cathedral, Germany. It was brought from a Roman temple and built into a pillar. Green Men began to appear on Catholic tombs; there is a fifth• century one at Poitiers, France.
The Green Man was first introduced into England by Norman masons after the Norman Conquest and became part of the symbolic language of the Church. He mushroomed both in this country and throughout Europe due to the Catholic Church, monastic orders and pilgrims. But there are no written records to direct us to the Green Man's meaning.
He may well have been used to reinforce Christian teachings. The concept of viriditas, "the greening of the soul" by the sacred life force of God's spirit, was key to the visionary thinking of 12th-century Benedictine, Hildegard of Bingen as was God breathing viriditas into Adam and Eve to give them life.
In the 14th century a new freedom of interpretation spread amongst masons. Green Men began to have more menacing faces and may have been the Church's representation of the devil incarnate or sinful flesh. Bishops, abbots, landowners and wealthy merchants paid for and commissioned these carvings as they became increasingly popular.
But not all Green Men were austere and consequently not all of them had the same meaning; some appear lost and may represent lost souls. Some are tongue-poking; the meaning is ambiguous; it could have sexual connotations, express revul sion or be warding off evil.
During the Reformation many prominent Green Men were destroyed to make way for the new Protestant religion, but a huge number of hidden green men remained.
The Green Man was constantly changing and developing. He reappeared in the 17th century• in memorials and the elaborate title pages of early printed books. It can only be deduced that this symbol was adopted by those with no understanding of its original significance.
In the 18th century he emerged on Scottish gravestones, which may seem curious given the Presbyterian aversion to the old faith and "Popish images". But again it is possible that the Green Man was not seen to be linked with Catholic ritual otherwise it would not have been allowed. The Green Man's meaning now symbolised resurrection. Surprisingly Puritans and Presbyterians who settled in America and forbade the depiction of the human face have the Green Man appearing on their gravestones. They are to be found on four sides of a foot-high tomb in Elora in Ontario, Canada, an area that was populated by Scottish settlers.
In the Victorian era the Green Man's meaning changed once again as he emerged with profusion on public buildings probably due to their fascination with the Gothic. But he was considered merely an attractive motif purely for street decoration.
The changing and even contradictory nature of symbols and customs are nothing new. If we return to Lady Raglan, she had a fanciful notion that the Green Man found in churches and the character of the May King in the medieval May Day celebrations were one and the same, believing them to symbolise the coming of spring.
This caught on as a popular view, so much so that the Green Man has also been attributed to the song "John Barleycorn" (the corn or barley god who was resurrected after death in the shape of a tree growing out of his head), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Jack in the Green, Lord of the Hunt, Green George, the character Puck in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream and even Robin Hood. Currently the Oxford Dictionary refers to the Green Man as a link with "seasonal fertility": such is the power of popular conjecture.
The Green Man's popularity is owed to what is commonly termed the "12th-century renaissance movement" in which Catholics enthusiastically drew upon ancient images and ideas to reinforce the Church's teachings.