Astonishment and New Life: All of Us as the Green Man

Image: “Green Man” carving on a door pillar of the Kilpeck Church

What do we make of this human face spewing thick and leafy branches from its mouth while its wide eyes stare out past us in apparent shock? Visual art and theology scholar Stephen Miller in The Green Man in Medieval England: Christian Shoots from Pagan Roots (July 2022, Cambridge Scholars) argues persuasively that all medieval Christians would have recognized this as the face of Adam and therefore the face of us all. This is a face astounded by the advent of new life as three seeds erupt into The Tree of Mercy that holds Christ and gives new life to a dead world. These seeds were brought from Eden by his son Seth in the hope of healing his ailing father but were placed under Adam’s tongue after Seth returned home to find Adam dead. “Green Man” depictions sometimes even conflate Mary’s arms holding the child Christ with the branches of the tree upon which Christ will die and become the life-giving fruit with his resurrection (44). These branches grow not only out of Adam’s mouth but from his nostrils, ears, eyes, forehead, and chin. They carry leaves from 28 identifiable varieties of plants (chiefly oak, hawthorn, ivy, maple, and acanthus) although even these recognizable plants are often stylized and although over eighty percent of the leaves are entirely imagined with no recognizable natural counterpart (24). Branches also bear fruit, especially acorns, as well as occasional birds and other creatures.

Miller’s argument flies in the face of most written accounts of this striking and widespread image that have appeared since Lady Raglan named this face the “Green Man” in her 1939 article “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture” for the journal Folklore. Miller says that “Lady Raglan has misled a generation of those all too eager to buy-in to a quasi-pagan theme of the greenwood …based on romantic notions of …national identity that are wide of the mark here” (58). This story of a Christianity rooted in paganism and needing to be restored to its pagan roots has taken many forms. Considering the Theosophists such as Rudolf Steiner, Daren Kemp writes that “contemporary pagan movements follow pre-Christian traditions but in doing so can facilitate a Christology of Jesus as a pagan god or Green Man” (46). In another line of interpretation, these supposed pagan roots are understood with a more typical contemporary Christian attitude of conquest. Kathleen Basford’s book The Green Man (1978) associates the “Green Man” with “only the darkness of unredeemed nature” and a general “demonic character” so that we see him depicted beneath Mary and the Christ child where the Virgin has “tread on” and “trampled” the “head of the old serpent, the tempter himself, lurking in the Tree of Life” (57).

Reflecting on Miller’s book, it strikes me that pre-modern Christian imaginations could see life in all of its wild abundance within images where we benighted people of this secular, market-driven, and bureaucratic age tend to see only the morbid, the grotesque, and the demonic. We modern humans are attracted by the well-lit, the well-groomed, and the glossy while we are uncomfortable with nature, our bodies, rude awakenings, birth, astonishment, and awe.

Although the book gets me rhapsodizing easily, Miller’s own writing in The Green Man in Medieval England is systematic and modest. He notes only one other scholar who has come close to the same realization of the Green Man as Adam. James Coulter in The Green Man Unmasked (2006) says that the Green Man is “none other than the Old Adam bearing the burden of his ‘original sin’” (57). This is close, but it misses the critical connection to resurrection via the many popular stories of seeds from Eden planted under Adam’s tongue and growing into the tree from which the wood of Christ’s life-giving cross is made. Coulter, although identifying the Green Man with Adam, still feels the need to bring in images of evil and suffering as Adam is depicted under the burden of his original sin rather than as realizing and participating with astonishment in the new life that comes through Mary and Christ. As Miller points out clearly, this medieval Christian image is one that would have communicated powerfully to all those building and attending churches during the Age of Faith:

In the Hebrew, Adam is plural for man or mankind. …If then the [Green Man] motif stands for us mortal man doomed to die as descendants of Adam—it also stands as a reassurance and reminder of the Christian hope and promise of the resurrected life to come, won through the sacrifice, death and resurrection of the second/new Adam. This explains the ubiquitous presence of the Green Man in so many medieval Christian churches as well as the significance of the motif’s appearance in relation to the Blessed Virgin and Christ Child. The Green Man is indeed Everyman, in all of his death-bound and life-renewing stages of exuberance, torment and ecstasy. (58)

While Miller makes a strong case for his understanding of the Green Man, he also recognizes how the importation of this established Christian motif into England with the Norman conquest would have been received and appreciated within a new culture where a variety of Celtic and Norse pagan figures and images remained and would have influenced the stonemasons and woodcarvers who copied this image into so many new churches. Miller considers a wonderful range of previous scholarship and allows for some of the typical Christian appreciation of pagan stories and characters in the reception of the Green Man within the English context. In one of many delightful details, Miller explores connections with Tolkien’s work, giving particular attention to Tom Bombadil (53-54).

As Addison Hodges Hart notes in his Church Times review of Miller’s book: “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.” With its careful scholarship and rich offering of full color plates (featuring a father and daughter collaboration in the many beautiful photographs by Lucy Miller), this book is a delight. It is filled with fascinating details such as the medieval myth of lion cubs—always born dead only to await the arrival of their father in three days to breathe new life into them (15). Or the reference by Queen Elizabeth I to the “fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England” as Miller described one of the only “Green Men” images to survive in stained glass following the iconoclasms of those serving Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell (31-33).

Most inspiring to me was Miller’s obvious appreciation for the wonders of the “medieval Christian legend-making mind at work” (45). This pre-modern Christian imagination and living relationship to creation is a treasure with which we moderns clearly have an increasingly forgetful and confused relationship. Miller considers a host of related medieval Christian stories and their associated images with some depth, and he makes several theological connections, including a few in relation to the wonderful John Scottus Eriugena with his love for a creation charged with the presence of God (27). We need more scholarship such as this that puts us back into relationship with our rich Christian past without distrusting, demeaning, or worshiping the many pre-Christian connections as well.

Our world rarely knows anything of the astonishment shown on the face of Adam as the seeds of life sprout forth from under his own long-dead tongue. We are satisfied and placated by a thousand counterfeits for life and have much need of the disruption apparent in Adam’s wide eyes. May we be provided with more writers and artists and saints who can help us find ways to gaze and create and ponder again the stories and insights that were so close at hand for generations of those from the Age of Faith (Christians, Muslims, and Jews) who longed for new life with so wild and lush an expectation.

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