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I have been intrigued over many years by the image of the “Green Man”. This is a common feature of old churches. Known technically as “foliate heads”, these are found alternatively as the capitals of pillars, “bosses” at the junction of roof beams, or as carved misericords beneath choir seats. They take their name from their depiction of human heads, with foliage emerging from the eyes, nose or mouth. They can be grouped according to the type of foliage depicted, on the assumption that each carries a different, specific symbolic value.
Theories about the origin and meaning of the Green Man vary widely. I have drawn heavily on the work of Clive Hicks. Also Robert Graves informs a good deal of my interpretation, particularly his book The White Goddess, in which he analyses at length the old tradition of a “language of the trees”.
Because these images originate undoubtedly in a pre-Christian tradition commentators have claimed often that they are mere pagan survivals which have no legitimate place within a Christian context. In have never been convinced by this argument. Within this present context I use them in order to explore visually what William James termed “the varieties of religious experience”.
There seem to be four very common types of Green Man (willow, hawthorn, oak and vine) to these, however, I have added three more (pine, holly and apple). Each of these I have identified with a particular approach to the nature of religious belief, faith and religious experience.
Seven of the images displayed here are based on roof bosses, and two (of four) are based on capitals. Please click on the image for additional information.