The Green Man
The ‘Green Man’ is a modern term used to describe a medieval motif of a human head from which emanates foliage of various kinds, most often through the mouth, but sometimes through ears, nose and eyes. Often the brow is furrowed giving the head an anguished appearance. The motif is the most commonly occurring figural design found on roof bosses in the parish churches of Devon and is also found on a number of the great stone bosses in Exeter Cathedral.
In the pre-Reformation church in Devon it is likely that interpretation of the motif was entirely consistent with the spiritually medicinal nature of religion, in particular the sacrament of penance.
The head contained many portals through which the disease of sin could enter the body: eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. In order to attain salvation, this sickness had to be expurgated by bringing it out through the mouth in confession.
A penitential interpretation of the Green Man accords with Chaucer’s declaration that: 'Penitence may be likened to a tree, having its root in contrition, biding itself in the heart as a tree-root does in the earth; out of this root springs a stalk, that bears branches and leaves of confession, and fruit of satisfaction...Penance is the tree of life to them that receive it'.
A penitential interpretation of the Green Man also chimes with the story of Seth, the youngest son of Adam, who was sent by his dying father to Paradise for the Oil of Mercy which had been promised to him at the end of the world. In a late fourteenth-century play cycle, probably from Glasney, Cornwall, Seth is told to take three seeds from the fruit eaten by his father and to place them, when Adam dies, between his tongue and his teeth. This is shown in late medieval stained glass in the church at St Neot, Cornwall. The seeds will grow into the tree which becomes the cross on which Christ is crucified. Thus the tree which is central to the story of the Fall, becomes the tree on which mankind is redeemed.