If you take a good look around a medieval church today, you’ll see a variety of different images. You might see carvings of saints and other obviously Christian symbols. However, you might also see images which, if you pause to think about it, appear to have little to do with our modern understanding of Christianity.
You might see a grotesque gargoyle leering back at you from the rooftops. There might be carvings of foliage and beasts – all God’s creation to be sure, but often with no obvious connection with any bible story. You might see all manner of weird mythical creatures such as unicorns, griffins, and mermaids. And, in more than a few English churches, you’ll spy a curious image of a man’s face, covered in foliage. You’d probably recognise this image as the ‘Green Man’.
But what are those images doing there? And, what does this Green Man have to do with Christianity?
The Green Man in Medieval Churches
A study of 798 English medieval churches conducted in 2019 found 400 that contained carvings of this kind. In addition to finding classic Green Man images, it also found a wide variety of animal images shown covered in sprouting foliage. All-in-all, this amounted to 1,172 carvings (around 3 carvings per church), of which around two-thirds were human faces.
It is therefore safe to say that this was an incredibly popular feature of medieval ecclesiastical architecture.
A fourth century tomb in Poitiers is possibly the earliest appearance of such an image in a Christian setting. Such images continue to feature in Christian contexts during the early Middle Ages, but only very rarely. Indeed, prior to 1000 AD there are only a very few examples of its use.
The earliest English examples of the Green Man date to the eleventh century. They only start appearing in very limited numbers in the initial instance. We have to wait a century before we see their popularity beginning to take off. However, their numbers grew steadily as the Middle Ages wore on, and the vast bulk of the surviving images (87%) date to between 1100 and 1499. Their acceptance as an architectural feature began to decline as the sixteenth century continued, especially after the Protestant Reformation.
Medieval sources are surprisingly silent on the meaning and symbolism behind these ‘Green Man’ images. They were simply a feature of the decorative architecture of the period. It is possible that the patrons paying for the construction of the churches concerned may have requested them, but we have no firm evidence of this. On at least some occasions the details of the decoration appear to have been left in the hands of the masons. In short, we have nothing to tell us why they added a Green Man or what they meant by it.
Although many Victorian antiquarians made studies of church architecture, they have nothing specific to say about the Green Man. They certainly mentioned the presence of such images, and some even included illustrations of them in their work. However, as far as these scholars were concerned, the Green Man was just a feature of gothic architecture – nothing more than a decorative convention. No one thought to comment on their religious significance or possible meaning.
Indeed, we have to wait until 1939 before anyone thought to attempt to answer the question – ‘what does the Green Man actually signify?’
In 1939, Lady Raglan wrote an article in the Folklore journal entitled ‘The Green Man in Church Architecture’. This was the first time in history that anyone had used the term ‘Green Man’ to describe these head carvings.
Lady Raglan went further. She suggested that there was a connection between these foliate head carvings and the ‘Green Man’ appearing on various pub signs of the same name. She also made a connection with several other long-standing folk traditions, writing:
“…the figure variously known as the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, The King of May and the Garland who is the central figure in the May Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe.”
Could it be that these images therefore reflect the remnants of ancient pagan belief? Perhaps some lost druidic tradition centred on a long forgotten antediluvian nature spirit? There have been those who have built upon Lady Raglan’s observations to attempt to make such a case.
In short, are these images reflective of some kind of vestigial pagan nature belief that has somehow survived, embedded within medieval Christianity?
The theory, that the Green Man image is a symbol of vestigial paganism, has its problems.
Firstly, the Jack-in-the-Green figure that appears in May Day celebrations is a relatively modern invention. It probably dates to the late eighteenth century (the earliest attested reference). It most likely evolved from a C17th fashion amongst girls of decorating themselves in garlands and other decorations for May Day. The stark fact is that the Jack-in-the-Green was not part of medieval culture.
Secondly, if the Green Man image is a relic from pagan times, then why does it not feature significantly in architectural decoration before the eleventh century? The Green Man is very much a medieval phenomenon of the period 1100-1499, many centuries after druidic paganism, as a living belief system, had disappeared.
Thirdly, a study of these Green Man images reveals that green was not even the dominant colour in their decoration. Colours such as gold and red were used more frequently in medieval times (possibly implying an autumnal association). Furthermore, many of these images cannot be definitively gendered as male. At least two are definitely female and many have no apparent gender. Indeed, quite a few animals are depicted covered in foliage in the same manner as human faces.
A pagan deity?
If the Green Man images signify a pagan deity, the obvious question is which pagan deity do they represent?
This is where we encounter further problems.
The Roman God Saturn was a deity associated with agriculture, abundance, and renewal. However, the Romans typically depicted him as a Roman patriarch.
Pan, another nature deity, was depicted as a faun with distinctive goat horns.
Silvanus, the god of the wild woods was depicted wearing a crown of foliage but otherwise as a bearded Roman patriarch. He was not shown covered in sprouting foliage.
The Gaulish God Sucellus, who would have been venerated by druids, was depicted in a similar fashion to Silvanus. Sucellus was often associated with a hammer and a pot – symbolism entirely absent from depictions of the medieval Green Man.
Indeed, of all the European pagan gods folklorists have explored in their search for an inspiration for the Green Man, none appears to fit the bill.
A Hindu Connection?
Looking more widely, the only non-Christian supernatural entity that comes close is the Hindu kirtimurkha. Images show this demon usually as a disembodied head and, more importantly, it is sometimes spewing forth foliage.
This entity was originally a demon that challenged the God Shiva. However, Shiva overpowered it and forced it to consume itself, except for its own head. At this point Shiva forgave it and ordained its image displayed above temple archways. In this way, images of the Kirtimurkha found their way into Hindu decorative temple art.
However, despite superficial similarities with the Green Man, the kirtimurkha is distinctly different in several key respects. Most notably its features are almost always demonic, sporting fangs and other inhuman characteristics. Furthermore, only occasionally do images show it disgorging or consuming foliage. It is just as likely to be consuming itself or disgorging flames.
Its resemblance, not to mention its cultural connection, with the medieval Green Man is therefore extremely tenuous. Nevertheless, could western traders, visiting India, have witnessed such images, and took inspiration to imitate them without understanding their religious significance? It’s a longshot.
Religious Symbolism or Decorative Art?
Could the Green Man therefore be what many Victorian scholars assumed it was – little more than a decorative fashion with no particular religious significance? Perhaps they were right to view it that way. Maybe it was nothing more than a medieval artistic convention. Perhaps it held no more religious meaning than the decorative foliage on Corinthian columns that also appear in some churches.
This is a valid argument, except that we do know that many other mythical creatures that appear in the masonry of medieval churches did hold a religious significance.
The gargoyles often seen on church rooftops are there to ward off dragons and demons.
Some churches feature images of mermaids, often holding combs and mirrors. The mermaid is a symbol of the more animalistic side of man’s passion and her mirror and comb a symbol of vanity. Her image serves as a warning to good Christians to avoid the sin of lust and vanity in one’s own physical beauty.
A medieval audience often attributed symbolic significance to such images. This would therefore tend to suggest some kind of symbolic meaning associated with the Green Man.
The Medieval Mind
Medieval art and architecture did draw heavily on a pagan past. However, the pagan past on which it drew was, very often, the classical pagan past of ancient Rome and Greece. For one thing the old myths of the classical world were far more accessible. The Greeks and Romans themselves had, after all, written them down in ancient times gone by. The ancient paganism of the druids, on the other hand, had been an oral tradition that left little to nothing in the written record.
Therefore, if we are looking for an ancient precedent for the Green Man, classical mythology would be the most obvious place to start.
The other area we must consider is medieval Christian mythology. Now some might find it hard to associate Christianity with mythology, but mythology is a key component of all religious belief. However myth and religion are not the same thing.
A dinner service includes forks but also plates, knives, and spoons etc. In the same way religion includes mythology but also many other things. Religions all have their own mythologies, but they also have rituals, moral philosophy, social institutions, art, and architecture etc. Mythology, therefore, is just one dimension of religion.
Medieval Christian Mythology
When considering Christian mythology in this context we must think specifically about medieval Christian mythology. And that means we must look at two things. The first are the stories we find in the Bible. The second are the stories we won’t find in the Bible.
This latter category, in medieval terms, included a rich wellspring of myths and stories surrounding the saints and martyrs. It also included tales from biblical times that are not in the bible at all. In other words, ‘dangerous Catholic superstition’ if you want to take a C17th puritan line with it. And it is within this latter category of stories that we can find a tale that links in very closely to our Green Man.
The Golden Legend
In 1260, Jacobus de Voragine, the Archbishop of Genoa, published The Golden Legend. It was an instant smashing success. Aside from the Bible, it was the most widely read religious book in medieval Europe.
Legend is a collection of hagiographies detailing the lives of saints and martyrs. However, it was utterly unlike any modern-day hagiography of this kind. De Voragine included any interesting story he could find – including apocryphal tales of dubious provenance. The result was a fantastic mix of tales of holy superheroes, miracles, marvels, relics, devils, and dragons!
It is here that de Voragine relates a tale that appears to relate to our Green Man imagery.
The Head of Adam
According to the Legend, as the biblical Adam grew old, he became ill. His son, Seth, seeking a cure for his illness returned to the gates of the garden of Eden to ask for help. However, he was not permitted to enter as man had been thrown out of the garden by God. Instead, he was granted some seeds from the tree of mercy.
By the time Seth returned however, his father was already dead. De Voragine tells us that Seth buried his father and planted these seeds in his mouth. From these seeds trees eventually grew that would furnish the wood used to make the Holy Cross.
Thus, we have foliage sprouting from the head of Adam which would eventually form the cross of salvation.
It is a promising possibility. It does have a couple of problems with it, however.
First, although it certainly accounts for the Green Man in cases that depict a human face, it does not adequately explain the foliage-covered animal images.
Second, de Voragine’s work was published in the 1260s. The Green Man imagery pre-dates this. We don’t know when the story of Adam’s head originated, however. It probably does pre-date de Voragine, but we don’t know when it first emerged.
Several classical writers were very popular throughout the Middle Ages. Of these, one of the most popular and most widely read was Ovid and his famous work – Metamorphoses.
Most educated men throughout the Middle Ages, both in England and across Europe would have been familiar with Ovid and his stories to some extent. And, sure enough, his work contains tales of people transforming in trees. Indeed, it contains not just one such tale but several.
One of the most interesting is the tale of Baucis and Philemon. This poor couple offered hospitality to the gods and, as a result, the gods decided to reward them. As part of this divine favour, when their time came to die, they were transformed into trees, allowing them to be rejuvenated in plant form.
Such an image of rejuvenation had the potential to be co-opted within Christianity as a symbol of re-birth, resurrection, and the promise of eternal life. But again, this image alone struggles to account for the presence of animal images sprouting foliage we also see in medieval carving.
That said faces of individuals wearing leafy headwear or sporting leafy beards were not unknown in classical times. These images are not a great match to the medieval Green Man but might represent an earlier artistic tradition that contributed to inspiring it.
Re-birth and Rejuvenation
Whilst we have explored a number of possible ‘meanings’ for the medieval Green Man, it is impossible to arrive at a definitive conclusion. That said, the story we find in the Golden Legend and the metamorphic tales of Ovid both imply themes of rejuvenation. Both imply the emergence of new life from the corruption of death.
This theme has an obvious connection with the Christian concept of resurrection and eternal life. So is it possible our Green Man stands as a symbol of rebirth, rejuvenation, and eternal life?
One thing counts against interpreting the Green Man as a symbol of rebirth. And that is the fact that, originally, many of these images were painted in autumnal colours. Even in the case of surviving images that are painted green, it has been shown that in most cases the green colouring is a post-medieval addition. Indeed, perhaps it might be more accurate to label these images ‘Autumn Man’.
So, what we have are often images of people engulfed in autumn foliage. We should therefore ask ourselves what an autumnal connection signified in the medieval mind?
Of course, autumn is the time of year when leaves are falling from the trees and plants are dying off. In that sense we might associate it with the end of life, the time when death (and final judgement) approaches.
However, autumn was also the time of year when fruits ripen and are ready for eating. So, it is also a time of bounty.
All these associations exit in modern times but in the Middle Ages, autumn was also associated with disease. When discussing the season of autumn, the medieval writer Isidore of Saville, explained:
“…it brings serious diseases, whence also at that time all the leaves of the trees fall. The meeting of cold and heat and the conflict between different kinds of air are the reason why autumn abounds with diseases.”Isidore of Saville, The Etymologies
Mortality and the Corruption of the Flesh
Could these images therefore be a cypher of disease, corruption of the flesh and the end of life?
One factor concerning the popularity of these images may suggest that they did hold some association with death and disease in the medieval eye. 63% of all these images date to either the C14th or C15th. This was the period in which this architectural decoration reached the height of its popularity. It was also a period that began with serious famine in the early C14th, followed by the devastation of the Black Death that arrived in the mid-C14th.
The C14th was a century in which death and disease featured far more prominently than earlier in the Middle Ages. It therefore makes sense that ecclesiastical decoration should seek to remind the congregation of man’s mortality and the need for repentance before it’s too late!
Perhaps this, then, was the intended meaning of such images. A reminder to the faithful that life was all too short, and that man should make sure to be ready for the divine judgement that will surely follow.
We can only speculate on the meaning of these intriguing carvings. However, it would seem likely that, to the medieval congregation, they served as a reminder of man’s mortality. The promise of life in the hereafter came with an important caveat: the faithful had to repent of their sins and make peace with their creator. These images might therefore have served both as a warning and a message of hope. A warning that death comes to us all in the end. A message of hope in the surety of redemption and rejuvenation for those who heed that warning.
Or, perhaps, the Green Man was nothing more than an artistic convention with no religious significance, as many of Victorian scholars seemed to accept. Based on what we know today, there is no way to be sure.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in reading some of our other articles concerning medieval myths and legends:
The Legend of Robin Hood:
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References and further reading
Green Man Carving – Rochester Cathedral, photo by Akoliasnikoff, (Wiki Commons)
18th Century Jack-in-the-Green, London – Photographic copy of an 18th-century print, hand-coloured by SiGarb, (Wiki Commons)
Kirtimukha in the gable of the ubosot building of Wat Ban Ping in Chiang Mai, (Wiki Commons)
Legenda Aurea, Unknown artist Padua, 1480, (Wiki Commons)