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The Green Man in Medieval England: Christian shoots from pagan roots by Stephen Miller

by
21 October 2022

Addison Hodges Hart reads a scholarly work on a mysterious figure

AS ANCIENT and medieval artistic motifs go, the “Green Man” — more accurately, the foliate head — has proved wonderfully multivalent, mysterious, and malleable. He has been explained in a wide variety of ways: as a pre-Christian fertility god, as a demonic being, as a somewhat jolly symbol of unconstrained nature (like Pan or perhaps Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Present), and not very long ago I came across a conjecture that he was a sort of cipher of Anglo-Saxon resistance to Norman domination (think Robin Hood, perhaps).

This last is an especially unconvincing interpretation, given that the Green Man’s earliest appearances in English cathedrals and churches only date from the Norman Conquest. He is a Norman import, in other words. Everyone loves a good mystery, and quite a few are taken with the conundrums of folklore. The Green Man has appealed to many on those grounds.

Lucy MillerThe Exeter Cathedral corbel including the Green Man, mentioned in the review. From the book

But, in fact, he has too often been misunderstood. He is not so impossible a figure to comprehend as many have supposed. He is a distinctly Christian image, rich with interlaced scriptural and traditional symbolism, and he is thoroughly medieval. To see the Green Man rightly is to catch a glimpse of the medieval religious and mythological mind at work.

Stephen Miller, a visual-arts and theology scholar, has presented the evidence that the Green Man is traceable to apocryphal Christian (and Jewish) texts about the Garden of Eden, hagiographies pertaining to Adam, legends about the making of Christ’s cross, and such medieval texts as The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine and the Imago Mundi of Honorius of Autun. Along with his careful research into the meaning of the motif, he has provided a sort of guidebook to a selection of locations around Britain where the many versions of the image can be seen.

Perhaps most stunning of all are the 69 colour plates that provide the centrepiece of this attractive volume, the photographic work of his daughter, Lucy Alexandra Miller. For me, if I were to choose a single image from the gallery for meditation, it would be Plate 23, taken at Exeter Cathedral. It is a photo of a 13th- or 14th-century carved corbel, depicting the Virgin and Child above a “disgorging Green Man”. The most likely meaning of that powerful image is provided in Stephen Miller’s text — but don’t look to me to give up any spoilers.

 

Addison Hodges Hart is a writer. His latest book is Silent Rosary: A contemplative, exegetical, and iconographic tour through the mysteries (Cascade, 2021).

 

The Green Man in Medieval England: Christian shoots from pagan roots
Stephen Miller
Cambridge Scholars Publishing £67.99
(978-1-5275-8411-2)
Church Times Bookshop £61.19

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