Leaf mask: a Victorian Green Man outside Jesus College, Oxford. Faces like this, ingeniously constructed from leaves, have their precedents Roman temple architecture.

Stray cat: long after the Romanesque cat masks had generally become human masks, stray feline images were still carved in some parish churches. This example is from Sparsholt. The 14th-century cat mask presides over the tomb of a sleeping knight.


The Missing Link?
Leafy faces appear in Roman temple architecture, associated with the worship of Bacchus and the sea god Neptune or Okeanos. So the Green Man’s partial origins in classical antiquity have never been particularly controversial. But Roman foliate heads lack the more spectacular attributes of the Green Man as known in mediaeval times. They do not vomit foliage, exhale greenery from the nostrils or weep leaves from the eyes. On current evidence, the grotesque, disgorging faces so widespread in parish churches have no precedent in Roman art. Nor do Celtic or Scandinavian traditions appear to offer any clues.

When disgorgers first appear in churches it is in Norman architecture – more properly ‘Romanesque’ (the style extended far beyond the realms of the Norman kings). The Romanesque era flourished in the 11th- 12th centuries and in churches of the time, the disgorgers especially appear as feline faces, emitting long beaded bands from the mouth, and sometimes flowers and what appear to be fir cones as well.

Cat masks disgorge beaded bands, interlacing mythological figures at Iffley Church. Do they derive from the kirttimukha of Hindu tradition?

Cat masks are plentiful in Oxfordshire and many are illustrated on this site. In a revolutionary study of 2003, writer Mercia Macdermott proposed that their homeland was not in Europe at all but in far-off India, in the fierce cat-like face of the kirttimukha and a fabulous beast called the makara who disgorges pearls and lotus stems (the mysterious cone-like motif is by this theory a lotus bud). Originally two distinct images, they also fused over time so that the cat-like kirttimukha disgorged pearls and stems.

We would strongly recommend anyone with an interest in our subject to read Explore Green Men by Mercia MacDermott, Heart of Albion Press, 2003 (reprinted 2005 with minor corrections). Rightly described as 'the first detailed study of the history of this motif for 25 years' it is entirely level-headed in approach; in fact much of the text patiently deconstructs some of the more fanciful myths surrounding the Green Man. But the conclusion is a startling revelation; in all likelihood the Green Man’s disgorging characteristic, to say nothing of his often ferocious countenance, had their origins in Hindu art and in the art of India’s other religions, Jainism and Buddhism, which also embraced the motifs.

Kirttimukha (’Face of Glory’) heads from the Gupta Dynasty, c. AD 500 (Huntington Archive)

Historians and archaologists have, in recent years, been discovering more extensive cultural interaction between India and Graeco-Roman Europe than ever before thought. There was, for example, a big Roman market for Indian objets d’art and Indian embassies visited Rome during the early centuries AD. When the Dark Ages dawned in Europe, the study of medicine, astronomy and mathematics continued to flourish in India, and Asiatic learning reached Christendom via Arab trade routes. Arabic manuscripts were treasured in Europe’s royal and monastic libraries. The first disgorging foliate heads appear in illuminated manuscripts as early as Anglo Saxon times - before they were carved into the fabric of churches.

Iffley Church – the cat-like Green Man

Iffley Church has specially profuse examples of cat masks disgorging bead bands, as well as a notable example of a cat-like face emitting foliage. It is easy to see this as a Green Man in embryo. In time, one might guess, mediaeval carvers forgot the origins of the motif. The cat faces morphed into human heads, and the pearls and lotus stems became leaves of oak, hawthorn and other plants familiar to the church craftsmen. What survived from the original tradition was a sense that the auspicious symbol (still ferocious in many cases) would help protect the church from ill-wishers.

The wisdom of the East is incorporated in the Christian tradition of the Magi who follow a star to Bethlehem. The early Church fathers were respectful of learning whatever its source of origin. There is nothing implausible in Mercia MacDermott’s thesis, but it is still a new concept and much more needs to be learned about precisely when and how the first Indian prototypes may have reached European shores – to say nothing of leafy Oxfordshire.

Fritwell Church – do these disgorging beasts derive from the makara of Indian tradition? In Hindu temples the makara is also depicted in profile, as a full length creature (unlike the disembodied, full-face cat mask).

All of which is to say that the county’s Romanesque carvings are of extreme interest to us! If you have any information, do get in touch. A special appeal is made here to any academics working with mediaeval manuscripts, or in the fields of Romanesque and Oriental Antiquities. An exciting quest beckons, and if you can contribute in any way email info@greenmantrail.com