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Trinity + 15: Green Men

16th September 2007
Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28, Luke 15.1-10 , Psalm 14: The fool speaks thus

I had a surprise and a shock recently, which I would like to share with you. Taking photographs with a flash for the new church guide, I found that the rather melancholy young man propping up the arch by the chancel, whose wistful face (crowned with a circlet of oak leaves) I had admired Sunday after Sunday, was in fact sticking his tongue out at me, and had probably been doing so for nearly 800 years. What are we meant to make of this gesture, and of the carving as a whole?

Of course we must distinguish between what the medieval stonemason meant to convey, and the meanings we read into this symbol in the 21st century - possibly two very different things, and each equally valid.

What is equally intriguing is whether we are the first congregation for 800 years to be able to recognise this corbel for what it is - certainly you would never do so in the ordinary church lighting. The Victoria County History simply calls him: a carved head with foliage of good 13th century type.

In 1939 Lady Raglan wrote an article for the journal of the Folklore Society called 'The Green Man in Church Architecture', making for the first time the connection between the foliage faces found in churches throughout Europe and the 'Green Man' of folk custom. This archetype emerges in the tales of Pan, Bacchus, the Green Knight, "Jack-in-the-Green" and John Barleycorn: they are all related to the Green Man, who symbolises the cycle of growth being born anew each spring.

This mythic figure continues to capture the imagination of artists and folk singers, as this modern song shows:

Before you laid your tracks or daubed your houses;

Or drove the furrow hard across the wold,
I danced alone beneath the spreading branches,
And sang away the winter's clinging cold;
Spelling sap to rise and buds to quicken,
And lithe green shoots to spring from out the mould...
Wry masons and woodcarvers called me to them,
When spires were raised to match my tallest trees;
They set my leaf-mask leer on arch and lintel,
To mock the preacher's dry solemnities.

It is said the Green Man 'knows and utters the secret laws of nature; irrepressible life,' or as Dylan Thomas put it, The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age. Researchers have found that the greatest concentrations of green men in European churches are near stretches of historic woodlands. Trees are not simply landmarks, they have helped us understand and explain our place in the world. They outgrow us and outlive us, reaching deep into the earth and high into the sky. We virtually carved ourselves out of the primeval forest, and went on to make half-timbered houses, tea clippers and men-of-war, hawthorn hedges, greenwood chairs, all from the trees about us; we ate and fed our beasts on apples, hazel nuts, beech mast and acorns. Family names Sawyer, Cooper, Woodward and Turner all tell of forbears whose tasks related to wood. Our cultural connection with trees is there to be read all around us. And the ability of trees to regenerate themselves is legendary. The olive trees that still stand at the Garden of Gethsemane are the descendants of the very same trees near which Jesus prayed.

The only green man named in a carving is a 13th century fountain dedicated to Silvanus, 'the god of the oak' (also worshipped by British Romans and Celts) at the French abbey of St-Denis. It has been said that during the 12th century, when stone churches began to replace wooden ones, stonemasons did not exist and wood carvers were expected to fashion the extensive and ornate stonework. On finding themselves in charge of stone-building projects, the woodcarvers summoned the aid of their most trustworthy ally-the powerful god of the oak.

Etymological research by the University of Wales shows that one Celtic deity, Viridios, has a name meaning 'Green Man' in Celtic and Latin, both Indo-European languages. Rather than alienate their new converts, early Christian missionaries would often adopt and adapt local gods, sometimes turning them into obscure saints. A great number of the images and practices of the modern church, such as yew trees and holy water, candles and bells have a Pagan origin, while the dates of most major religious festivals are either on or close to Pagan feasts. The Green Man has therefore been dismissed by many as just another example of a Pagan image brought into the Church to be made safe. However, there are thousands of these figures in churches and cathedrals across Britain (in Exeter cathedral apparently outnumbering images of Christ by as many as 5 - 1). The inference is that they held an important spiritual place in the Christian church before the Reformation but researchers have found no mention of the Green Man in medieval texts, which is why we have no documentary help in interpreting these symbols. Between the 10th and 12th centuries, the foliate mask are fantastic, sometimes nightmarish inventions, representing evil and sin, but the 13th century re-interpreted the image in a naturalistic way, focussing on the lifelike quality of the carved leaves. Some, like ours at St Peter, have strikingly 'real' faces, suggesting they could be portraits, perhaps of the stonemasons themselves?

But what of any specifically Christian message from the Green Man? I would like to read you some thoughts of Malcolm Guite, an Anglican priest: Maybe it allowed for the fact that the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ is also the God of nature, there is some mysterious link between the pattern of death and resurrection which is at the heart of salvation and the dying to rise again, the winters before spring, that are patterned into nature herself. I found myself wondering as I walked along by Granchester meadows what Jesus might have said if he had been born amongst the fields and hedgerows of England rather than the dry valleys of Judeah. "I am the Good Shepherd", 'I am the Way' and of course, 'I am the Vine'. And on our native soil he might well have said 'I am the Green Man'. The God who made Spring itself could not be less than the gods we worshipped once in sacred groves. He is more than them of course, he perfects and completes what they only shadowed forth, but there is more, not less exuberance in him than in Pan and Bacchus. He is more than the Green Man but he is also everything the Green Man ever was...The Green Man probably arrived in the Christian Church as a part of a general sense of Spirit in Nature, an inheritance from the Pagan past which was doubtless more sub-conscious than deliberate. It is highly unlikely that Green Men entered the church in a gesture of knowing respect to Pagan deities. Green men are far too prominent in churches, at a time when heresy and non-conformity were fiercely punished.

And finally, in the words of John Masefield:
O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after,
Lo, all my heart's field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
The young green corn divinely springing,
The young green corn forever singing...
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.

Let thy blessing, O Lord, rest upon our work this day. Teach us to seek after truth, and enable us to attain it; but grant that as we increase in the knowledge of earthly things, we may grow in the knowledge of thee, whom to know is life eternal, through Jesus Christ our Lord , Amen.

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