Green 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.