The Green Man and Christian Tradition

The Green Man has often been described by guides in cathedrals up and down the land as a pagan fertility figure which has somehow invaded the holy spaces of Christendom. Yet, what is clear, in those times of learned theological scholarship that rigorously controlled the iconographical schema that turned the stone and glass of the sacred architecture into a great and unified vision of the Christian revelation, as a pagan intrusion the foliate head of the Green Man would have had no place. This image, in all its various forms, of a leafy head that recent times have entitled the Green Man, is clearly more than a decorative device. Its appearance in significant places, its frequency and the richness of its invention argue for a more serious purpose. However this is a purpose that is shrouded in mystery for virtually nothing has been found written to account for its presence and we belong to a culture that requires verbal explanations. Yet the Green Man is to be found in churches and cathedrals right across northern Europe.

Two years ago I visited the Early English church of Stokenham in South Devon where the only figurative decoration on the capitals of the nave pillars was a single foliate head facing towards the altar. The other capitals were decorated with geometric swirls and similar patterns. It was of classic form with a pair of branches emerging from an open mouth. A similar face, though of cruder craftsmanship, can be found in the Norman church of Abberley near Worcester, overlooking the altar. Again it is significant by its being the only carved figure actually in the sanctuary. A very fine example is to be found in the sanctuary of the church in Old Radnor. Such occurrences argue for an explanation that is compatible with pre-Reformation Christianity. An aspect of the Reformation that has not been given the attention that I think it should was the cultural, seismic shift from visual to verbal that focusing on sacred text brought about. It is a shift that has, I believe, impoverished our grasp of the Christian vision, exaggerated as it was by the concern of the reformers to rid the world of idolatry. We can acknowledge now that such a concern was indeed misguided and deplore the heedless destruction that resulted. But while we wring our hands over headless statues of saints and the loss of beautiful artefacts we should really be looking not at aesthetic loss but at loss of insight that the visual imparted. It is, perhaps of interest to note how well the foliate heads survived the attentions of the iconoclasts. I was particularly impressed by the survival of such a head in the Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral where destruction was very thorough.

I am arguing for a reappraisal of our approach to such imagery. Instead of resorting to verbal exploration of the visual I ask that we explore the insight occasioned by the visual visually. In relating the Green Man image to the reality of my own experience of life, nature, creation and the God I find there, I know I have entered a rich and enriching country. I find springing up in my imagination, prayer and art an intense awareness of the immediacy of God, of Christ, in nature around me. Christ calls to me from wild flowers by the roadside, reaches down to me from tall trees, embraces me in warm arms of leaf and branch. As I tender touch grass and bark and leaf and fruit and flower I feel the quickness of His Spirit. Hugging an ancient oak I know His wisdom, patience and warm presence. Rocks console by their firm endurance and strength. As I sensitively prepare vegetables for the meal and then eat with family and friends I am conscious of taking part in a communion in which Christ shares His life with me. In painting those same vegetables I am aware of their holiness. I suggest that it is from such insights and experiences that those, who created the images we now classify as Green Men, worked, found their inspiration. Words would have been inadequate to the reality they sought to celebrate. They are still inadequate.

Yes, there probably is a pagan root to the Green Man image, but we should remind ourselves of the obvious truth that God first revealed himself to man in nature. He still does! Scripture and Tradition are not the exclusive source of revelation, a fact the Church has been all too eager to claim. The Jews and, indeed, the early Christian Church existed, grew and developed in a pagan world which undoubtedly provided insights, ideas, rituals and images which were transformed into those of the new faiths. To deny this is to betray the richness and vision of these faiths. Our experience of cosmos and the living world around us reveals God as it did to those we call pagans. Fortunately the visual tradition of the Christian Church, has provided a way to exploring this other source of revelation. Now, we, in our time, can enter visually that same tradition, confident in its orthodoxy, knowing God is there to guide us.

My own exploration of this complex of images, ideas and experiences has been ongoing for many, many years but recently I have engaged with the task of creating a cycle of paintings for exhibition which I have variously entitled, Green Man, Return to Eden or Celebration of Life central to which has been my desire to root myself in my humanity and that humanity into the living nature of God’s created world and universe.

Paintings and prints from this cycle can be viewed on the website or in my studio in Bucknell by prior arrangement or on spec if and when I am there. I can be contacted on 01547 530842

Peter Clare 1997