The Green Man Carvings

Whilst traveling around the country on the scholarship, repeatedly I observed the green man carving. Although I recognise the carving, even in its variations, I have never known or understood the meaning behind it, so when I discovered a book on the Green Man in a secondhand bookshop, I decided I should use this as an opportunity to discover more and below is the summary of my understanding of the green man, accompanied with some interesting images of Green Men, which I have seen whilst on the Scholarship. 

 

The term ‘green man’ was coined in 1939 by Lady Raglan. However this essentially means a face or demon mask which is surrounded by or interacting with vegetation such as vines. Green Men appear in both ecclesiastical and secular buildings, primarily as carvings- it is rare to find examples in 2D art such as stained glass or wall paintings. 

 

On the surface the green man is commonly believed to originate from Pagan traditions, and the concept of spring and new life and rebirth, however after doing further research on the subject this is regularly contradicted and many argue that these are Christian in origin. The oldest identifiable depictions of a male head surrounded by foliage ‘The Green Man’ come from Lebanon and Iraq and are believed to date to around the second century. 

 

The Green Man has many variations, branches or vines may sprout from the mouth, nostrils, or other parts of the face. They are found in many different cultures from different around the world, and so are an interesting puzzle. Green men vary in style and below is an outline of their varying styles based on date. 

 

Kilpeck is one of the earliest examples of Green Men which I saw and reviewed whilst on the Scholarship. The carving is very romanesque in its form and the foliage is very stylistic. This is from the 12th century.

Fig.1.Kilpeck- 12th Century.jpg
Fig.2.Kilpeck-overal- 12th Century.jpg

Fig. 1.: Kilpeck Church, 12th century green man example

Fig.2.: Kilpeck Church, the south door green man carving in context

At York minster one of the capitals has a stylistic carving of a green man and is believed to date from the 13th century. 

Fig.3.York minster- 13th Century.jpg

Fig.3.: York Minster capital, green man believed to be 13th century. 

In the late 13th, early 14th century the foliage of the green man became more realistic and natural in its appearance compared to earlier examples which had more stylistic foliage. At Broughton castle there are grotesque carving in the vaults dating back to the 14th century, and one of the carvings is of a green man, with more natural foliage but a mask type face.

Fig.4. BroughtonCastle-14thcentury.jpg

Fig.4.: Broughton Castle-14th century green man carving

Into the 14th century the style of green men themselves changed and rather than being carved as masks they were carved as more human type faces. An example of this can be seen at St Marys Church in York on a corbel which is believed to date to the 14th century.

Fig.5.York Church- St Marys- 13th Century_ 14_ 15_.jpg

Fig.5.: St Mary’s Church, York, green man carving believed to be 14th century.

Then from around the 15th century onwards there was a shift in the design of the green man, from the more human looking face to a demon type mask design. An example of this can be seen on a 15th century timber door to a Brasenose College Building in Oxford. 

Fig.6.Oxford, door-15th century.jpg

Fig.6.: 15th Century Brasenose College Building with carved timber door.

Green men carvings survived well through the dissolution and reformation as they were not biblical. 

 

An example just after the reformation can be seen at Sizegh Castle, the carving in the timber work is believed to date from 1564.

Fig.7.Sizegh Castle- 1564.jpg

Fig.7.: 1564 carving of a green man at Sizegh Castle

However in the mid-17th century green men declined, mainly due to the rediscovery of classical art.

 

Then in the gothic revival of the 18th century green men flourished once again and then as we move into the mid-19th century green men began to boom.

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Fig. 8.: National Westminster Bank, a 19th century building with a green man carving

As we reach the end of the 19th century the use of green men once again declines and there does not appear to have been any form of revival of green men on scale since this time.

 

These green men carvings are fascinating and we may never know their true origin, however they have been around for hundreds of years and generations have interpreted and made green men their own. Many of these carvings have survived for us to be able to appreciate and should be treasured as pieces of our history. 

Bibliography

 

Hayman, Richard. (2010) The Green Man. UK: Shire Publications Ltd.

Castelow, Ellen. (Unknown) Historic- UK: The Green Man, Found At: https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Green-Man/

Mastin, Luke. (2011) Green Man Enigma: Theories and Interpretations, Found At: https://www.greenmanenigma.com/theories.html

McDaniel, Spencer. (2021) Tales of Times Forgotten: Was the “Green Man” Really an Ancient Pagan Deity?, Found At: https://talesoftimesforgotten.com/2021/01/10/was-the-green-man-really-an-ancient-pagan-deity/