Mike Harding, in his Little book of the Green Man, points out that the name 'Green Man' was probably first used by Lady Raglan in 1939. We don't know what the medieval carvers who produced some of the finest examples would have called these faces.
We don't really know what they mean either, but the images are so powerful that they have persisted through time. They even, in many cases, escaped the stupid vandalism done to British church art by the Puritans.
In The Hidden World of Misericords, Dorothy and Henry Kraus suggest 'That so much underseat carving should have survived Protestant iconoclasm was no doubt due in large measure to the prevailingly secular subject matter'. These foliate faces are not obviously portraying Christian religious ideas either, which may be the reason that we can still appreciate so many of them today whether carved as misericords, roof bosses or elsewhere.
Hayman, in 'Church Misericords and Bench Ends' says that green men have 'often been misinterpreted as an indigenous pagan deity or as a spirit of nature. In fact green men represent sin and mortality.'
The Green Man also seems to hold a special fascination for carvers. In Understanding Woodcarving, John Foyle comments 'You may think we have enough of that fraternity around already. And, yes, the woodcarving world is certainly not short of pre-Christian sylvan dieties, or foliate men as they are sometimes called'. But the design is so strange and its origins so mysterious that carvers keep returning to it. In The Green Man: The Pitkin Guide, Jeremy Harte says that 'The Green Man was always a carver's device, whether in wood or stone. It is rare to find him in jewellery, illuminated books or stained glass'. Master carver Chris Pye, for one, has spoken of his fascination with the subject.
Similar faces can be seen carved on temples in India and there are even green cats, lions and snakes. In St John's chapel in St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol, there is an animal sprouting leaves from its mouth hidden amongst the medieval roof bosses.
|Image from http://stmaryredcliffe.co.uk/files/2014/08/St-Mary-Redcliffe-NW-tower-vaulting-report-revised-assembled-reduced.pdf|
Recently, I've been reworking a green man face carved in oak for 'Mayfest' in Bristol. It was okay, but didn't look exactly how I wanted it to, so I decided to recarve the eyes, nose and mouth. It was an interesting challenge, carving some fairly deep detail into an oak board only 10mm (25/64 inch) thick without going through. Here's how the face now looks:
|Image from: http://www.gargoylesandgrotesques.com/index.php?p=1_6_Photos|