Illustrated Architecture Dictionary

Green Man /Greenman
By Wayne Mori

April, 2012    

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
From the Archives #15  

Normally, this series of articles deals with some aspect of St. Paul’s Cathedral: a person of note, a momentous event, or an interesting artifact found within the cathedral itself. This article concerns none of the above. Rather, it will deal with something St. Paul’s doesn’t have: a Green Man.

A few months ago a parishioner asked me if we had one of those creatures lurking somewhere in St. Paul’s. I answered in the negative, but actually I wasn’t really sure. And I’m still not sure if we have a Green Man among us, or not. Shortly after that initial query, two events transpired  that piqued my curiosity, thus inspiring this article: I discovered my first Green Man figure on the end of a choir stall in St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in San Mateo, California, and I found a used copy of “Nightmares in the Sky: Gargoyles and Grotesques.” This 128 page volume is a collection of more than one hundred-twenty photographs of chimerical creatures carved on the facades of New York City office buildings.  Approximately sixty per cent of the subjects photographed were Green Men!

A Green Man (or Greenman) is an image of a human face, either peering through thick foliage, or bedecked with a mask of twigs, leaves and other forms of intertwining vegetation. Oftentimes, tendrils and roots are sprouting from his ears, nostrils and mouth. 

The facial features of Green Men can range from playful to frightening.  Many   might even remind us of Peter Pan or Robin Hood, both of whom have connections to the English Green Man tradition. Those used in churches tend to have more benevolent countenances than the ones found on secular buildings.

Most Green Men are easily spotted. Their images decorate doors, chancel screens, choir stalls, pew ends, capitals, corbels and stained glass windows. Others, hidden from prominent view, are tucked away in dark corners, or gaze down upon the congregation from vaulted ceilings lost in shadows.   If you take your search to the streets, you will often find their weather-scared faces staring down at you from above doorways, window casements or cornices. Images of the Green Man were a very popular form of exterior ornamentation in the Victorian and Beaux Arts periods on both sides of the Atlantic.

This particular Green Man looks down from the Crowley Webb Building at 268 Main Street, just a few minutes-walk from St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The capricious figures of Green Men, festooned with garlands of vegetation, were used by the ancient Romans, the Germanic peoples of northern Europe and the Celts. Their images were used in pagan temples and on funerary monuments. By the fourth century A. D., their faces began appearing on Christian tombstones. Pre-Christian folk traditions from the British Isles told of giants, living in the forests and who wore nothing but leaves. Men dressed in such a fashion have been an important part of village fairs and festivals for centuries, and continue to participate in these events in many parts of the United Kingdom.   Carved images of Green Men began to appear in English churches in the twelfth century. Medieval stone masons drew upon many sources, both pagan and Christian, to illustrate virtues to be practiced, as well as vices to be avoided. 

Almost every architectural feature or ornament of a church had a symbolic meaning. For example, a pelican feeding its young from its own wounded breast illustrated compassion and the Atonement.  One Green Man, found in a medieval church, disgorging  grape vines from his mouth, may have been a silent word of caution about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.   

So, what are we to make of this whimsical 2,500-year-old character found in so many of our churches?   A common theme that runs through   all religions, both old and new, is that of the life cycle of birth, life, death, decay and rebirth, a seasonal cycle repeated annually in nature itself.  Not only is the Green Man a symbol of irrepressible life, he also reminds us of our close relationship with nature, and how vital trees are to mankind’s survival. As an ecological symbol, the Green Man also points out that trees have been around a lot longer than humans, and are greatly deserving of our respect and protection. 


Photo and text Wayne Mori
Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2011
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