Blog #119: The Green Man in our Churches

May 11, 2023
Monika Weber-Fahr
It had stirred quite a few controversies, over the past months: The picture of a Green Man - or rather: of his face - on invites to King Charles’ coronation festivities. I had not really followed the debate, mostly perhaps because it seemed more of a British-tabloid tempest-in-a-teapot kind of thing. But last week’s coronation events themselves - which I did follow, as a good member of the Anglican Communion - brought a lot of the opinions on this mythical creature into my social media feeds. So I decided to do a bit of research to find out what’s up with this Green Man - after all, the gentleman seems to feature as decoration, if not as a symbol, in many of our churches while also reminding us of the omnipresence and beauty of our environment, perhaps featured as some male version of Mother Nature.
What I found was beautiful. Firstly, no one seems to really know where the Green Man as a symbol or a picture comes from originally. Some claim celtic origins, whispering words like paganism or naturalism. Yet, the rather widespread use of the symbol seems to suggest a certain universality of meaning, related to nature and its nourishing forces. Secondly, the term itself, used for what really is a “foliate head design seen everywhere in European medieval church decoration of the eleventh to sixteenth centuries” was apparently introduced or popularized by a British aristocrat, Lady Raglan, in an article she wrote in 1939  for the British journal Folklore, titled The “Green Man” in Church Architecture. Thirdly, the image of what seems an ancient archetype symbolizing nature, birth and rebirth, perhaps representing the cycle of new growth that occurs every spring, can be found well beyond the British Isles or even Europe - there are examples of similar figures from the Lebanon and Iraq, dated to the 2nd century, and similar figures in Borneo, Nepal and India. Fifthly, the Green Man and its symbolism seem to occupy people’s minds well beyond the coronation invitation: When you google Books on the Green Man, you get well over a 100 million hits, Goodreads lists 45 books on the topic, and hundreds and more come up on Amazon when searching for Books Green Man. And sixthly, there are even songs and poems featuring the Green Man.
Foto:Foto: A foliate head was depicted on the invitation for the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, designed by heraldic artist and manuscript illuminator Andrew Jamieson - an ancient figure, symbolic of spring and rebirth.   
Interestingly, though, I could not find any reference to Green Man pictures or sculptures, or even gargoyles, in Austrian Churches - neither in our Christ Church building nor in the older churches across the country that would have been built in a period when foliate heads were part of the decoration. But we don’t have to go too far to find them - Green Man symbolism features in a few churches in neighboring or nearby countries - such as in Germany’s Bamberg Cathedral and in Romania’s Richis’ church. Wherever we find the foliate heads, and whatever you think about them: For me, the Green Man in our churches is a lovely reminder that our natural environment has been present in our faith for long and perhaps anchored somewhat deeper in people’s minds and hearts than today. Maybe the invitation to King Charles’ coronation can also be an invitation to re-kindle our relationship with some of these connections.
So today’s is kind of an unusual LivingLight Blog - inviting you to explore history and art around the Green Man, a truly beautiful environmental symbol, joining us in many olden churches with so much positive presence - and yet a symbol that meets controversy. Despite my research, I can’t give you proper conclusion - but rather an invitation: To join me in exploring the resources I have shared above, and maybe to enjoy a poem, written by Charles Causely.
"Green man in the garden
Staring from the tree,
Why do you look so long and hard
Through the pane at me?
[..] [..]
But when I softly turned the stair
As I went up to bed
I saw the green man standing there
Sleep well, my friend, he said." 
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