The Green Man
History - Throughout the country there are several thousand known examples of the Green Man, with many more to be discovered. The earliest of these date from the beginning of the Middle Ages. They were common throughout the Medieval period and in some ecclesiastic building they may be counted in the dozens.
This popularity came to an abrupt end, in Britain at least, with the reformation. The new simplified approach to Christianity brought about a backlash against the colourful and symbolic imagery of the Roman Church. Sculptures, paintings, windows and decorations of all kinds, not only Green Men, were destroyed, white washed over or simply forgotten. In subsequent years some rare examples continued to be produced for secular buildings such as the gates of Hampton Court Palace.
With the Victorian Gothic Revival the Green Man became popular once again. It was an accepted design element in the sculptors repertoire and from this time onwards may be seen in both religious and secular buildings including churches, civic buildings and private houses.
Medieval Times - What the Green Man meant to the medieval mind is unknown. In all the surviving architectural accounts of the period there is no mention of this type of sculpture.
Today the Green Man is often seen as an example of the survival of pagan belief into the Christian period, hidden away in the dark corners of churches by the adherents of the old religion.
The opposing argument is that the Green Man must have been viewed as representing Christian values and was an accepted element of current ecclesiastic iconography, as anything which could have been considered remotely unorthodox would not have been tolerated.
Anne Ross throws light on this argument when she quotes St. Bernard of Clairvaux-
"What are these fantastic monsters in the cloisters under the very eyes of the brothers as they read?... What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these savage lions, and monstrous creatures? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half-beast half-man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent's head, there a fish with a quadruped's head. There again an animal half-horse, half-goat... Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities we should at least regret what we have spent on them."
This suggests that the pagan argument may well be correct, although not explaining why they were made or why they should have been tolerated when they so clearly caused such discomfort.
However, Anne Ross chooses not to explain the context of the original text and also omits parts of the chosen section of text which do not support her view.
St. Bernard was a Cistercian monk, an order known for it's strict piety, he is criticising and ridiculing Cluniac monks for their excesses in food, clothing and buildings. He criticises the unnecessary size of their churches and the excessive expense lavished upon them, all to the detriment of the poor. He accepts that there may be a need for splendour in place intended to impress the laity, but argues most strongly against unnecessary and distracting ornamentation to be found in the areas reserved for the monks themselves.
"Again, in the cloisters, what is the meaning of those ridiculous monsters, of that deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity, before the very eyes of the brethren when reading? What are disgusting monkeys there for, or satyrs, or ferocious lions, or monstrous centaurs, or spotted tigers, or fighting soldiers, or huntsmen sounding the bugle? You may see there one head with many bodies, or one body with numerous heads. Here is a quadruped with a serpent’s tail; there is a fish with a beast ’s head; there a creature, in front a horse, behind a goat; another has horns at one end, and a horse ’s tail at the other. In fact, such an endless variety of forms appears everywhere, that it is more pleasant to read in the stonework than in books, and to spend the day in admiring these oddities than in meditating on the law of God. Good God! If we are not ashamed of these absurdities, why do we not grieve at the cost of them?"
From the LIBRARY OF THE WORLD’S BEST LITERATURE ANCIENT AND MODERN, Volume IV, 1896.
It is true that the buildings of the Cistercians - in the early days at least - were free of ornament and decoration, while those of other orders were not.
It is clear that St. Bernard did not consider the carvings to unchristian, but simply distracting to the monks when they should be studying. Had it been that former it is unlikely that he would have concluded is criticism with a comment on their expense.
Also, he asks "what is the meaning of these ridiculous monster s..?" This may be a rhetorical question, but he was an educated man, if there had been any meaning, then he would have been aware of it.
So, it may be assumed that the carvings either had no meaning, or if they they had then it was not considered unchristian, even by the pious standards of a monk of St. Bernard's standing.
In many places, from the village church to Cluniac's cloisters, these carvings are not hidden away but in open view for all to see. There was a deliberate wish by the architects and sculptors for the images to be seen and in most cases with the acceptance of the Church.