The term ‘Green Man’ describes the image of a face which is surrounded by leaves, a familiar motif to medieval sculptors with whom foliage and heads were a popular design.
It was, in particular, a carver’s device so it is unusual to find the image of the Green Man in other artwork for example stained glass or illuminated books. Despite varying greatly in design, all the representations of the Green Man depict a living being in the middle of the young, green buds of spring or the crisp, browning leaves of autumn. On some Green Men the foliage may spring directly from the mouth or other parts of the face and some of these branches may bear fruit or flowers. The Green Men found in Norwich Cathedral are in the style known as ‘the foliate head’ which means that their faces merge imperceptibly into foliage.
Although commonly termed the ‘Green Man’, the original name of this strange figure remains unknown. There are hundreds of Green Men across the country with different features and portraying different emotions, such as fear, humour or tranquility.
The Green Man can be found in bench-ends, misericords and on the capitals of columns; however they are most commonly found on roof bosses. They would have been carved either
- on location, which involved masons working in restricted positions on elevated wooden scaffolding or
- in the masons’ lodges, especially in winter when the wet and cold weather did not permit the masons to lay courses of stonework.
The abundance of versions of the Green Man in medieval buildings attests to the ongoing significance of natural imagery in the religious life of the period. The original meaning surrounding the Green Man, probably that of rebirth in springtime, has been lost across the centuries but the image has remained popular.
To find out more
If you are interested in the Green Man, here in Norwich and elsewhere, we sell a number of books, replicas and gift items in the Gift Shop at the back of the Nave and online.