Monday, April 13, 2015

In the Company of Green Women

Green Woman boss, Carlisle Cathedral - 2006, Greenshed
(As always, this image, and those on the remainder of the post can be clicked to enlarge.)

"The Greenman is known by just about everyone. His leafy face has appeared in many cultures. He is the symbol of nature's rebirth in the spring, he is the guardian of the forests, he is the protector of the wild places, and he is a positive masculine image of men as caretakers."
- via the Beneficent (Fraternal) Order of the Greenman

"Usually referred to in works on architecture as foliate heads or foliate masks, carvings of the Green Man may take many forms, naturalistic or decorative. The simplest depict a man's face peering out of dense foliage. Some may have leaves for hair, perhaps with a leafy beard. Often leaves or leafy shoots are shown growing from his open mouth and sometimes even from the nose and eyes as well. In the most abstract examples, the carving at first glance appears to be merely stylised foliage, with the facial element only becoming apparent on closer examination. The face is almost always male; green women are rare."
- via the Wiki entry for Green Man

A modern representation of the iconic Green Man
Green Man 3 - Resin Bronze - John Bonington

"There seems to be a connection between the Green/Wild Man of the woods and the Green Man carvings.  Both have obvious associations with plant and woodland features and both are likely to trace their origins back to pre-Christian folk traditions and Gods.  However, whereas the Wild Man was always seen as somewhat threatening and not of this world, early carvings of Green Men were of friendly, well dressed young men of the period."
- via an English Folk Church article.

"A Green Man is any kind of a carving, drawing, painting or representation of any kind which shows a head or face surrounded by, or made from, leaves. The face is almost always male, although a few Green Women do exist (examples can be found at the Minster of Ulm, Germany and at Brioude, France), and Green Beasts (particularly cats and lions) are reasonably commonplace."
- via this Green Man Enigma page.

Green Woman roof boss; St. Nikolai Church, Quedlinburg, Germany
Photo Credit: 2006, Groenling

"Since Lady Raglan’s article a Green Man was supposed to be the head of a man. Period. We were mesmerized by this dictum for years, just looking for Green Men, not women, not recognising them when we encountered them. In fact, when we visited England in 1991, Joke took a photograph of a Green Man roof boss in Canterbury Cathedral, manufactured between 1379 and 1400, stems and leaves issuing from the corners of his mouth. It took us years to notice that the figure in the centre of the vault is a Green Woman."
- From The Green Man & the Green Woman – part I by Ko & Joke Lankester, July 31, 2013

"I’ve also included two images (17 and 18) from Exeter Cathedral which do not seem to me to portray men. We should be careful not to allow the terminology to flatten or oversimplify our perspective of Green Men, few of which are green, not all of which are men but which participate in a remarkable, arresting and varied motif."
- From Gabriella Giannachi's 2012 article: Dr Naomi Howell tells us about the Green Man.


Perhaps this article is meant to help eliminate a certain deficit on the world-wide-web: the dearth of medieval Green Women. Then again, maybe I just want to free up some of the Green Women held hostage on the Flickr collections devoted to Green Men, such as the Green Men collection, or the Company of the Green Man, or Jack in the Green, or Green Men, Green Beasts.  If you query Green Women, four paltry pages seems to serve as the entire Green Women compendium... a compilation of a few samples of contemporary art, and photos of women painted green. Maybe this is due to a few misconceptions that need to be corrected. Or, maybe the ghosts of Green Women are just feeling bitchy... as well they should!

Blame it on those rabbits. Or maybe the Hare in the Moon. But, what started as a innocent venture into the mythic realm to celebrate the first day of spring eventually blossomed, multiplied, freaked-out, imploded, exploded, and finally rearranged itself into several interconnected heaps of themes, images, links, quotes, and what-have-you which have held me hostage for the past two weeks. Ones inner daemon-muse-imaginative-other is a harsh taskmaster. But, start following rabbits and... well, we know what happens to people who start following rabbits...

A boss featuring the Three Hares at Wissembourg, France. Photo credit: Michel Terrier.
Found on this wonderfully comprehensive French Three Hares website.
This boss appears with another which appears to be a "screaming hag" (see footnote)*

So, anyway, if you'll harken back to my March Hare post, at the time I'd just happened upon an intriguing old symbol known as the Three Hares. Never content to let sleeping hares lie, however, I was inspired to launch my own mini-investigation which resulted in the previous post and what's amounting to an unintended series of posts. Alas, my investigative genetic flaw is not easily sated. And, there remained several niggling details buzzing around my head demanding attention; specifically the observation noted by members of the Three-Hare Project that the carvings of the Three-Hare symbol are often found in the company of Green Men. As the symbol of the Green Man has always intrigued me, it was inevitable that I'd begin searching for examples of this pairing online.

Which was pretty much the point at which Alice fell down the rabbit hole.  Because, after viewing the four examples I ferreted out online, I discovered that three of the alleged Green Men didn't quite look like "men" at all. To my eyes (at any rate) they appeared to be... well... Green Women.* In fact, one even looked like my grandmother (may she rest in peace). But, as I'd never heard much mention of Green Women in the past outside of a primarily modern-day New Age context, I had to ask: were my eyes deceiving me? Did old carvings of Green Women even exist in any meaningful numbers, or were they, as described in several of the quotes above, mere anomalies?

But, after looking through hundreds of images of "Green Men" online, I'm here to report that, while Green Women do no not by any means predominate, they're not that "rare" after all. And, In the end, their apparent "absence" boils down to a variety of cognitive bias.

(Note:The photo credits are imbedded in the photos themselves on all three B/W panels on this post. The full-color originals are linked to by the corresponding locations in italics.)
On the left is a roof boss from Kings College (and this adorable girl reminds me of a very dear friend). The delightful faery-like Green Woman in the center is from St. Mary's in Suffolk. The last Green Lady - wearing a wimple - might be a Mother Superior. She's found in Bruges, Belgium.

Remember the Chinese Hare-in-the-moon myth from the (afore-mentioned) previous post, and the cognitive bias referred to as Pareidolia? Well, when it comes to the perception of Green Women, another sort of "bias" comes into play. That is, we see what we're prompted to see. Let me put it this way: somewhere between the time when the earlier Green Men and Women began to appear and the current century, a mass cognitive bias fell into place. And the culprit may have been a woman: Lady Raglan, who coined the term "Green Man" in 1937. So the bias began with the mistaken perception that all those strange faces spouting foliage were male. After all, they hadn't the pretty, demure expression 20th century aesthetics associate with the feminine face... specifically faces enhanced with Max Factor, Revlon, and Lancôme. Moreover, while the ancient Green Men were generally portrayed as hoary old men, for some reason an artist's portrayal of hoary old crones was never considered. Nor, in fact, were the aesthetics of the medieval world considered;  a world in which plastic surgery and cosmetic dentistry didn't exist. In other words, If you had a full set of teeth, a full head of hair, no missing limbs and reasonably balanced features, you were probably considered quite a catch in the Middle Ages.

In any case, from that point on, everyone became quite convinced that Green Women were total anomalies in the medieval world because modern minds had been subliminally conditioned not to see them. Hence, we fail to label them as what they are, because we are literally incapable of recognizing them.**

But, lo and behold, there are Green Women to be found in European churches and cathedrals, and, although there are far fewer of them than the more iconic Green Men, they still wait patiently in the background awaiting discovery and identification. (Women have a bad habit of doing that.)

On your left is a rather defiant-nun-like Green Woman found in Navarre, Spain. The wonderful portrait-type Green Woman in the center is found at Burgos Cathedral. The one on the right, however - from Derby Cathedral - is one I'm unsure about.

So, I went in search for Green Women for this article. In reality, the faces peering out of the leaves are very often androgynous, but, I had a certain criteria for choosing the Green Women images that appear throughout this post (specifically those shown in black and white). The figures themselves had to a.) have character, b.) look head-on into the camera, c.) be sufficiently intact and d.) be well-lit. Of the six (B/W) shown above, only the last one - from Derby cathedral - is somewhat problematic, in that I'm not all that sure this Green Person is a she or a he. It could be either, but that's sort of why I included it here. Because she/he is representative of a meaningful segment of the the Green Person population.

Ema and Astrid from the Eyes as Big As Plates exhibit.
(Hat-tip to Terri Windling via her Wild Folklore post.)

This particular Green Person is a famous one - one of an androgynous pair which flank a Derby Cathedral entrance - but, it, along with it's partner and the other Green Women I've shown, is not identified as being a particular person although it seems to be a portrait of an actual individual. And you'll find this is often true of the less iconic Green People. Another feature of the Derby Green Person shown is the face almost resembles a death mask. Was this Green Person possibly the artist's deceased mother... or father? Ah, because that's another interesting fact about male and female physiology. When very young, some male faces could easily pass for a female's. But as one ages, a female face begins to look a little more.... well, masculine. In other words, all those old Green Men might easily represent old Green Women (see photos above). Moreover, many of those scary screaming Green Men might actually fall into the screaming crone/hag category, along with another ambiguous group: the Moon-faced variety. Sometimes male, sometimes androgynous, but very often they are feminine as in the third B/W example shown directly below.

On your left is the Lady of Lacock. In the center is a very contemporary-looking design located in Tawstock, Devon. (Hint: Meryl Streep) On your right is a moon-faced Green Woman found at Norfolk.

In any case, it's impossible to positively identify any of our Green characters because, unfortunately, the artists themselves left no records. Which leads me to my last point, and it's here the whole ball-game takes on a new aspect.

As it were, there was one last thing I noted, as I grew increasingly dizzy viewing the myriad Green People on the Flickr pages - but don't blame me if, after viewing a few hundred of these babies, you start seeing them coming out of your walls (!) - and it goes as follows. There are a number of Green People carvings for whom one gets the impression just might have been self-portraits of the artists themselves. And, why not? Art is, after all, art, and, artists themselves tend to be a tad self-absorbed. Furthermore, carving figures into stone and wood is no picnic; it's hard work. Then again, the artists so employed were not permitted and/or given the opportunity to sign their work or blow their own horns. All they generally received was a small wage, and absolute anonymity. There are few if any records - to my knowledge - of the actual artists who embellished the medieval churches and cathedrals. In fact, one gets the impression that the only real gratification the artisans had - and the only way of reminding the world they once existed - was by carving either their own faces in stone, those of someone they knew, or some other personal symbolic imagery along with a few additional cryptic "inside jokes" understood only by themselves and their fellow guild members.

Green Woman ceramic by Jillian Barber.

The inevitable thought then occurred to me: if some Green Men could be self-portraits by male artists, couldn't a few Green Women be self-portraits by... well, women artists? Now, there's a proverbial can of worms!

Stayed tuned for my next post in the series where we'll explore the female artists of the medieval world! ;-)

PS  Here are a few more medieval Green Women found on Flickr pages, although (trust me on this) there's plenty more (!): 1.) Leicester Cathedral, 2.) St Cassian´s Church, Chaddesley Corbett, 3.) St Mary, Redcliffe, 4.) Much Marcie, 5.) Southwell Minster, 6.) St. Hieritha, Devon (a wooden boss), and lastly, 7.)  a wooden gem from Bovey Tracey, Devon.


* Two of the Green Person/Three Hare pairings can be found on this Green Man of Cercles .pdf; scroll down. You'll note the Three-Hare symbol from Wissembourg (appearing near the beginning of this post) is featured there accompanied by a rather wonderful "screaming hag". As for my "grandmother", she's the one featured with the Troleigh, Devon hares, and can also be seen here.

** From an interesting Science Daily article on cognitive bias, "Who are you looking at? Why women recognise more faces than men":

"Why are women and girls more skilled at recognizing faces? And why are they particularly skilled at recognizing their own gender? Herlitz and Lovén hypothesize that the tendency for females to recognize other females may be related to gender labeling and gender-typed imitations (for example, toy preferences at a young age), which results in girls orienting themselves towards other females, which in turn leads to more individuation experience with female faces..."

Who knew? ;-)

Green Woman Mask by Richard Doyle, 2010 found here.

Note on inset images: Of the two inset images, the one above was created by San Francisco potter and doll artist, Richard Doyle. (Note to Richard: your work is fabulous - create a website!) The second one is a Green Woman found at the church of St. Cadwaladr, Llangadwaladr. The photo credit should read: 2011, John Ibbotson, and can be found here.

Note on the images used in this post: The Flickr photos used in this post can be found on the Flickr pages indicated. As I am not a Flickr member, I had no way of getting in touch with the corresponding photographers. I'd like to thank all of them for providing the Green Women images. Without them, this post and its record would not have been possible.

In reality, I've borrowed a number of images in the "heat of the moment" while creating my Three-Hare posts. If any of those whose photos or artwork appear here or in the previous hare posts are unhappy with what I've done, please indicate your displeasure either in the comment section or in an email addressed to me, Dia Sobin: I'll be happy to remove both the "offending" image and the link. On the other hand, look at it this way, it's free exposure, and Trans-D is an entirely informational and wholly noncommercial blog which does not in any way serve my own financial gain.

Note on image-links wanted: I realize that a great many of the Green Women on this page hail from England, but I'm quite certain that they can be found elsewhere in Europe. If anyone reading this article has a link to medieval Green Women found in France, Spain, Germany, etc., please share it with us!


  1. What a fantastic post! I have to re-read it carefully later this week. It made me think of Oxford actually - where I attended a talk about the facades of the colleges, made to look medieval, but updated by stone masons all the time, so what tourists think dates from the 1460s actually dates from 2010.

    1. Thanks, TB. But, hopefully you meant renovated as opposed to "updated"! Ah well, so much for historical "facades"... ;-)

  2. I have to say, when you post on a subject, it can be considered a most well researched factual article.

    Fascinating......erudite and full of pretty cool images.

    I have a Green Person mask under the cedar tree - I think it's been there for 20+ years and is weathering nicely.

    1. Thanks, Bob. But, I think I bit off a bit more than I can chew presently so the whole operation has been stalled.

      A weathered Green "person"? It must be fabulous... although I hope I haven't made you nervous about assigning it a gender! ;-)

      I have a Green Man I bought years ago on my wall indoors. (He seems very out-of-place outdoors here in NM... where there are no trees and barely a blade of grass.) Odd, but I did see him online while I was researching this post... described as a Green Woman! Bizarre. He's so obviously male.