Brasenose College, Oxford.
Chadlington, Church of St Nicholas.
The Royal Blenheim pub, Oxford.
Have you seen the Green Man in Oxfordshire?
If so, tell us where…
As part of the Oxfordshire 2007 celebrations we aim to make a wide-ranging survey of Green Man figures in the county.
A mysterious leafy mask - or a face with plants streaming from the mouth, eyes or nostrils - the Green Man is an age-old presence in architecture and crafts. He turns up in some of the earliest parish churches and the cloisters of Gothic cathedrals; in 18th-century keystones and Victorian door surrounds. Chiefly sculpted in stone or carved in wood, he also appears in stained glass, ceramics, wrought ironwork and paintings. The ‘foliate head’ was a favourite theme of the great 20th-century artist John Piper who lived for many years at Fawley Bottom near Henley on Thames.
What did the earlier artists intend to portray? In times past, plenty of tales were told about mermaids and centaurs, for example, and we know much about their meaning in myth. But no written texts explain the Green Man in the same way. His lineage has been sought in the brooding woodland deities of the earliest pagan tree cults, and in Greek and Celtic religions. Certainly, under Imperial Rome, decorative artists were depicting faces ingeniously formed of leaves in temples and mosaics. And some early disgorging faces appear, improbably enough, in Indian temple architecture.
His symbolism remains elusive nonetheless, and mediaeval images may have been more influenced by Church belief than is sometimes assumed. It was once thought that the wood of the Holy Cross grew from seeds placed under the tongue of the dying Adam, which could help explain why foliage so often sprouts from human mouths in church carvings.
Whatever his origins, the Green Man appears in a fantastic variety of guises and his mood swings are bewildering. He can look tranquil, anguished, drowsy, mischievous, haughty or frankly terrifying. Always, though, he seems to embody some deep, revitalizing earth energy. It is easy to see why, in uniting humanity with nature, the Green Man has become a modern environmentalists' icon.
We have found mediaeval, Tudor and other important representations of the Green Man at many of Oxfordshire’s historic sites and we hope to discover more. However, his story does not end in those eras. Long after the industrial revolution the Green Man continued to appear in architecture and design, alleviating urban sprawls with hints of fantasy and the spirit of green nature. He turns up on brick-built terraced houses and suburban villas; on pubs, banks, factories and other commercial buildings. We just as interested in discovering the Green Man in your neighbourhood as at the better known heritage sites.
Where do we stop? We can’t keep tabs on all the contemporary garden plaques which depict the Green Man. Although we welcome the popularity of the ornaments there are too many of them to count in our survey. Also, the Green Man Trail is a project focussed on Oxfordshire. Sadly, we do not have the resources to cope with research elsewhere.
In other respects the Green Man Trail is very much a project for today and tomorrow. If you are involved in creative work themed around the image, do tell us about it – we would love to hear from you.
Would you like to help?
(Photos: if you want to send a picture, contact us first by email. Too many large attachments could choke our computer!)