Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Green Man

Recently I visited Norwich Cathedral, intrigued by the fact that it possesses more medieval bosses than any other church in Christendom. In total over one thousand sculpted and colourfully painted scenes from the Bible are depicted upon its ceilings, including many examples of  the 'Green Man' in its cloisters.

The Green Man is an elusive figure in Christian iconography. Often portrayed as a man with foliage spouting abundantly from his mouth or peeping from behind vegetable growth,  lurking or hidden from immediate view, there is no real explanation as to why this clearly pagan symbol frequents Christian churches.

Its been proposed that the Green Man  represents the natural cycle of mortal life, birth and death, or perhaps is the spirit or god of the yearly renewal of life; no-one really knows why this pagan symbol can be found in many Christian churches; its mythological meaning has been lost in the mists of  time and  scientific literalism. Equally intriguing is the fact that during the iconoclasm of the Reformation, when images of God, the Saints and the Virgin were gouged, defaced and broken in many Churches,  images of the Green Man remained unscathed. 

Norwich Cathedral did not escape from the iconoclasm of the Reformation. Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656)  described the events  which took place in 1643  at  Norwich Cathedral thus-

'Lord, what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows and graves... and what a hideous triumph on the market-day before all the country, when, in a kind of sacrilegious and profane procession, all the organ-pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had been newly sawn down from over the Greenyard pulpit, and the service-books and singing-books... were carried to the fire in the public marketplace; a lewd wretch walking before the train in his cope trailing in the dirt, with a service book in his hand, imitating in an impious scorn the tune, and usurping the words of the litany used formerly in the church... the cathedral open on all sides ... filled with musketeers.. drinking and tobacconing as freely as if it had turned alehouse.'

Colour along with number is  primordial of all symbols and a vast subject to discourse upon.  The colour green is  associated with naivete in colloquial speech and more importantly, with ecological awareness and  the growing political movement for the responsible care of the planet.

The psychologist C.G. Jung associated the colour green with  life, hope and the sensation function, quoting the alchemical tract Rosarium philosophorum (1550) thus-

O blessed green, which givest birth to all things, whence know that no vegetable  and no fruit appears in the bud but that it hath a green colour. Likewise know that the generation of this thing is green, for which reason the Philosophers have called it a bud.' 

All of which gets one no closer towards understanding why the mysterious symbol of the Green Man can be found in many Churches in England and throughout Europe!  

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