Spewing vegetation, his face gazes down at you. Enigmatic, mysterious, hiding in oak or vine leaves, he symbolizes eternity and rebirth. He is the Green Man.
In mythology, he is descended from Dionysus (Greek), from Bacchus (Roman), and from Osiris (Egyptian). He has appeared as Robin Hood and in the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight and is Dante’s Eternal Gardener.
The Green Man is immortal. To date, he has had four distinct phases: first in art, where he appears in early illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells as a grinning head surrounded by foliage.
In the Middle Ages, this image was translated into architecture: carvings of the Green Man appear in many of the great cathedrals of northern Europe. Here is the mystery. Why is a pagan symbol so prominent in great houses of religion?
The east of England is a good place to look for Green Men, particularly the cathedrals of LincoIn, Norwich and Ely.
At Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire, I counted nine, including what experts refer to as an “unmasked” Green Man — without foliage.
Symbolic of mankind’s spiritual development, such Green Men are believed to have finished disgorging their leaves and, having done their duty, are free to look beyond the mundane.
In Lincoln, the Green Man is not free. On a column on the west front of the cathedral he is trapped in writhing coils of vegetation. Ely cathedral was vandalized by Cromwell’s soldiers, but at least 10 Green Men survive, including one who sprouts foliage from his ears as well as his mouth. Ely has one of the best stained glass museums in the country and you can also visit Oliver Cromwell’s half-timbered house nearby.
Norwich is home to a famous Green Man. You will find him in the east cloisters looking inscrutable, his face fringed with gilt oak leaves.
Down in Kent, Rochester is chiefly known for its Charles Dickens associations, celebrated in an annual street festival. It also has a Jack-in-the-Green festival as does Hastings in Sussex. A man dressed in leaves is paraded through the streets and it is considered lucky to purloin a leaf or two. These are among the last survivors of once-widespread fertility festivals, the spring counterparts of harvest festivals.
Scotland has its Green Men. There are several in Glasgow Cathedral and a particularly hideous one in Melrose Abbey. But Roslin Chapel, south of Edinburgh has reputedly more than any building in the world — more than 100.
Green Men in the transverse vaults disgorge foliage that decorates the window surrounds. This wonderfully atmospheric Chapel dates from 1446 and has Masonic and Knights Templar links.
It also has the Prentice Pillar with eight dragons disgorging vegetation carved at its base — an extravagant representation of the Tree of Knowledge carved by an apprentice while his master was away. The envious master mason struck him dead when he returned.
Weathered carvings have been identified as cacti and sweetcorn, prompting speculation that its founder, Sir William Sinclair, crossed the Atlantic before Columbus.
Roslin is crumbling away. The British Ministry of Works in the 1920s attempted to halt the degradation of the sandstone by covering the walls with an impervious layer of paint. Sealing in the damp was the worst possible treatment and Rosslyn, to give its original name, is currently undergoing a major program of dehumidification.
Third phase Green Man slumbered. In the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era, he rarely appears in art or architecture. Witnessing man’s destruction of his environment, the Green Man has gone underground; back to nature.
His rare appearances include the center of the wrought-iron gates to Kew Gardens, in Surrey, and garden statuary: urns at Biddulph Grange, a Victorian folly in Staffordshire. Not that he is a gatecrasher: This was when botany became a respectable science.
In the fourth phase, the past 20 years, the Green Man has awoken and is in charge of our environmental consciousness. He drew our attention to rainforests and recycling.
His “Public Relations” department launched the Green Party and the ecology movement. He paved the way for the Gaia theory; that the planet we call home is a self-regulating organism which will survive in spite of man’s puny efforts to destroy it. The Green Man is alive and well this Halloween period in the year 2012.
Source: The StarPress