Sarah Coles


In Ely Cathedral there are at least Green Men and animals, with greenery spewing from their mouths and sometimes eyes.  What do they mean?  They come  from the 11th to the 15th centuries, though I have seen a late Roman mosaic Green Man in Istanbul’s mosaic museum.

Some say they symbolize pagan nature, always in torment, and always sited near the west end.  However, in Ely they are mostly at the east end, in the choir and near the high altar.  You can spot them in churches and cathedrals all over England.

Is he ‘Jack of the Green’ celebrated on May Day?  A pre-Christian nature god?  A wild man lurking in the forest?  Father Earth, a counter balance to Mary in heaven?  The devil?  Perhaps his meaning is individual and given by each sculptor.  Winchester cathedral has some glorious Green Men in the choir, was apparently carved by a master carpenter from Norwich.  In a forest of leaves one  Green Man wields a sword and shield, as does another man – maybe they are defending the wild world with its monkey, hawker with bird on his wrist, wyvern and other fantastic beasts?  Fr0m the mouth of a head sprouts a canopy of leaves, as if creating the forest.  Today, choristers still sing beneath this mass of greenery, with above it a blue star-studded vault of heaven.

My Green Man (from Amalfi, decades ago) is in the garden, with the shoots of golden hop spewing from out of his mouth.  In autumn his greenery will die, but come spring, he will recloth in  eternal renewal.  He celebrates the cycle of the year.

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