The Green Man

The Green Man

by Charles E. S. Fairey, 2014

Extract from:-

"The Ancient Trees of Crewe & Nantwich"

by Charles E. S. Fairey, 2018

Some churches contain fantastical representations of tree folk which have become known as ‘Green Men’, human and other forms with faces adorned with foliage. These faces have often been linked in the past century with pagan origins and to spring, and the rebirth of the earth. However their creation is almost certainly derived from a Christian context, possibly based on earlier images, but definitely placed in holy buildings by Christian people, because they first appeared in Christian churches in Europe, and came to Britain in the twelfth century. They are often thought to have been popularised by stonemasons following designs within illustrated medieval manuscripts, where these fantastical images also exist, although usually devils, human masks or cat’s heads, spewing branches and leaves. They then took on a form of their own with each stonemason or carpenter putting their own unique hand to their design and appearance. Other carvings inside churches which depict mythical beings also abound, such as demons, dragons, gargoyles and mythological creatures; some of these being known as ‘grotesques’.

Although the ‘Green Man’ in recent times has been linked with Celtic origins and symbolised with the Spirits of the Forests, as well as ‘Woodwose’, ‘the Spirit of the Wood’ / ‘the Wildman of the Wood’, and of course the stories of ‘Robin Hood’, and ‘the Spirit of the Green Wood’, their origins are Christian, but as touched on above, may draw originally upon classical antiquity, as much Christian imagery does draw upon classical pagan images. These have often been Christianised, as well as pagan sites across Europe, to form a basis for the then ‘new religion’ and give it a foundation upon ancient practices, which ensured a spiritual continuity with the past, using myths and earlier pagan forms to teach the morality of the ‘new religion’, to pagan converts and people new to the Christian faith.

They certainly are mysterious figures, and much has been debated why they appear in churches at all. They take on many guises, forms, characteristics and expressions, and appear in many medieval and later churches within Britain. We must also note that the Celtic people of Europe and Britain had long since depicted faces amongst leaves, in their artwork. Roman buildings have also been found to depict faces spewing leaves, and leaf heads have been found on Roman tombs. These forms had been adopted by the Vikings and Saxons, whose artwork often included long strands of curved, twisted, knotted and connected designs, with mythological beings, animal heads, human heads and plant and tree forms. As mentioned above medieval manuscripts also contained similar depictions to ‘Green Men’, with their curving and twisting interlaced patterns, which masons and carpenters must have used at first for their inspiration.

‘Green Men’ exist in wood, stone, and sometimes even in stained glass. Often they were originally brightly coloured before the Reformation, but with the advance of the Puritans, much of the beautiful colour was removed from our churches, yet the ‘Green Men’ survived their ‘white-washing’ and destruction of Catholic iconography.

Are these ‘Green Men’ protective symbols, due to these buildings being built with timber, as some surviving medieval and Tudor houses also have ‘Green Men’ carved upon them; are they a link between Pagan beliefs and Christianity, giving a Spiritual Continuity with the past; are they linked with the Celtic Cult of Head Worship; or St John the Baptist and his severed head, flowing hair and wooden staff; do the vines / leaves / branches growing from the mouth, nostrils and ears represent the Word of God, veiled in parable and allegory, as many medieval religious manuscripts show leaves and branches erupting from mouths of men, maybe representing the Divine words of God, emanating from the scripture; do they show worshippers that God is everywhere, and not just to be found in the pews but in the natural world as well, meaning that God can be found outside in the beauty of nature as well as inside a church, much like flowers are brought in to decorate the interior at sacred points within the Christian calendar, as well as religious ceremonies; are they a representation of nature within the spiritual space of a church; do they represent the teaching to ignore evil, via word – mouth, smell – nose, and hearing – ears, and that these vines growing from these openings represent this; do they represent the early converts to Christianity, a symbol of the yet to be baptised, coming in from the natural / pagan world, and being re-born in the Christian tradition, and therefore representations of transformation, maybe not just of baptism but also of death, when the body returns to the earth; or are they just a fancy of the creative minds of the artists of these wonderful sculptures.

‘Green Men’ at St Mary’s Church, Nantwich

Whatever they represent has been lost in the mists of time, and still invokes an air of mystery, for what they might mean, and maybe that is what they are, to invoke in the believer, a sense of the mystery of God.

Within the Crewe and Nantwich area ‘green men’ may be seen in the magnificent cathedral of South Cheshire, St Mary’s Church, Nantwich, where there are representations of him in wood, stone and stained glass, dating to the medieval period to Modern times. Elsewhere he can be seen on the left hand pillar of the Norman archway at St Bertoline’s Church at Barthomley and in the porchway of St James’ Church at Audlem, also depicted upon the left hand pillar of the church doorway.

The green man choir stall end, in Nantwich Church was often rubbed by the bride’s fingers before her marriage to her groom in the church to ensure a fertile marriage, a superstition which has survived from the medieval mind and maybe similar pre-Christian beliefs, that the green man image and his nose, (much like other mythological or natural world beings, often invoke luck by touching their noses, like the phrase ‘it’s all in the nose’), invokes powers of fertility. The use of the ‘Jack in the Green’ carved stone heads at the top of the left pillars to doorways at Barthomley and Audlem may also be for this reason, so that those who pass through the doors may rub or touch these mythological deities in order for luck or to ensure a fertile marriage, before entering the House of God. They too, may represent the unbaptised as well as the parishioner entering the House of God from the Natural World outside.

‘Green Men’ at St Bertoline’s, Barthomley (Left) & St James’, Audlem (Centre & Right)

'Green Men’ are often found on boundaries or crossing places, i.e. doorways or next to arches within the interior of the church, which separate the unconsecrated, and the holy areas from the most holy. The sprouting tendrils of vegetation from the mouth, nose and ears, may also indicate another reason for their existence. Do they represent the spewing out of evil or unclean thoughts, words, etc, from the souls of whom are worshipping God inside the church, so that they might be viewed as cleansed by the Spirit of God, or for the same reason from the most holy areas, much like Muslims wash themselves before entry into their mosques; albeit in an allegorical context, so that once they enter they are cleansed, and when they leave the sanctuary of God, they are renewed spiritually, to go back out into the natural or devil’s realm around, and their position on doorways or spiritual boundaries might be to guard those inside or entering God’s House from the Devil outside, and spew him back out from those worshipping inside, i.e. banishing the darkness from the light within. The Devil was often thought to live out in the wilds of nature, tempting humans, much like he tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Christ in the desert, and earlier pagan mythologies were often linked to places outside in the natural world.

The Green Man has become a symbol of Easter and the resurrection, as well as Beltane or May Day, during the last few centuries, and has become linked with the May King. His figure has often been seen in the rites of the May Day Festival, being linked with fertility, although this is most likely a Tudor and later eighteenth century invention, when the phrase ‘Jack in the Green’ first appeared.