Green Men

greenmanGreen men, sometimes known as Jack-in-the-Green, are strange leafy faces. Sometimes the face depicted is very clearly human sprouting leaves, often oak, from their mouths. Other green men are more foliage than person or can be seen wearing leafy masks that cover most of their features. If not oak leaves then the foliage often looks like hawthorn.  Sometimes the leaves are realistic and on other occasions they are much more stylized. In some carvings the green man is alone, in others his foliage has attracted the attention of birds and strange beasts.  Sometimes, like the capital from York Minster shown at the start of this blog, the green man is triple-faced.  There’s a similar, though less friendly looking, tri-faced green man on a misericord in Cartmel  Abbey the image at the end).  It’s not just men either, beasts including cats sprout leaves from their stone perches in churches and cathedrals across the country.


They occur in Norman buildings (Romanesque) and the later Gothic phase of cathedral architecture. Each succeeding epoch since has flirted with foliage figures, not least the Victorians. In fact, closer investigation reveals that green men have made their appearance back into antiquity.


No one is quite sure what they symbolise in the context of church, cathedral or abbey architecture. It often seems reasonable to make links with fertility, May Day celebrations and harvests as well as to forest gods.  The triple headed green men may have Celtic connections.  Though quite why so many Romanesque and Gothic masons across Europe took it into their heads to sneak older belief systems into the heart of Christian worship is a matter for some debate.

MacDermott  (Explore Green Men) observes that the images in churches were visual stories to remind the congregation about the dangers of sin and the importance of repentance as well as depicting images symbolising the life of Christ.  Medieval spirituality was a complicated affair.

As is often the case, Christian association may have subsumed earlier pagan beliefs. MacDermott suggests the in the medieval mind the cross on which Christ was crucified was a living tree.  Trees are best symbolized by leaves. Thus leaves are symbolic of redemption. She also looks at the links that might be made with Jesse. Many churches have Jesse windows showing his ancestry to King David and from there to Christ – Isaiah uses tree imagery to talk about the prophecy of the Messiah, “a Branch shall grow out of his roots,” Isaiah11.1-2. There are many other references to trees and leaves in the Bible including Ecclesiasticus. She also discusses the work of medieval theologians who drew on the world around them to explain their beliefs.


Some of the best examples, certainly the most prolific, can be found in Southwell Minster. They turn up as the decoration for capitals, bosses, fonts, bench ends and on the misericords as well. (Sadly I had only just started taking photographs when I last visited the minster and when I looked back through my photos discovered that none of them passed muster.)

Most cathedrals have a greenman lurking somewhere and sometimes remains hidden for a very long time. There is a green man in Cleeve Abbey but no one spotted it until the wooden timbers were preserved and restored at the beginning of the twenty-first century! I couldn’t see it even though there was a sign pointing out where it was hidden.



Wakefield Cathedral

wakefield cathedralUntil 1888 the cathedral was a parish church.  At 247 ft, it also has Yorkshire’s tallest church spire which is a marked improvement on the first tower which collapsed in 1320.  It’s a building that has seen change, redevelopment and neglect in its time and lets not forget the plague and the Wars of the Roses.  The Vicar of Wakefield died of the plague in 1349 and the Battle of Wakefield occurring in December 1460 saw the death of Richard, Duke of York along with his second son Edmund Earl of Rutland.  The twelve-year-old lad having pleaded in vain for his life was killed by Lord Clifford on Wakefield’s Bridge in vengeance for the death of Clifford’s father at the First Battle of St Albans.

My favourite part of the cathedral is the quire where the fifteenth century choir stalls are housed.  The carvings range from an owl to a green man. The owl is the emblem of the Savile family and it was placed here when Thomas Savile commissioned the stalls in celebration of his marriage to Margaret Bosworth in 1482.  The green man is more problematic.  The motif first appeared in England in the twelfth century in the form we recognise him today with foliage and tendrils of hawthorn or oak sprouting from his mouth.  However, it was a common motif in Europe before this period and has its roots in a pagan past.   It was replicated down the centuries and as well as the medieval example there are some clean cut Victorian interpretations on display. Other carvings on the misericords – the hinged seats on the stalls to ease tired legs during long church services – include a Victorian pelican which symbolises charity and a cheeky medieval acrobat showing us his bottom although decorum is maintained as a leaf covers his dignity.

It’s odd to think that many of these carvings were made at a time when England was in the throes of a bloody civil war.  Perhaps it was with some relief that the craftsman who created the misericord depicting the tudor rose completed his work.owl