foliate head

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An ornamental motif common in sculpture and woodcarvings in churches from the Norman and Gothic periods is a male head with leafy sprays growing from its mouth and/or eyes, or partially covered by leaves, like a man peering out from a bush. Art historians call this a foliate head; in English over the last twenty years it has been constantly called a Green Man, a term first applied to it by Lady Raglan in 1939, whose authentic meaning was quite different.

Examples are very numerous in England, and no complete listing exists, though several researchers are hoping to compile one (FLS News 23, 24, 25 (1996–7); they are found on arches, capitals, corbels, roof bosses, choirstalls, misericords, chancel screens—anywhere where rich ornament was desired, and secular or humorous themes allowed. Usually they are just one among many nonreligious motifs in a decorative scheme; for example, on the doorway of Kilpeck Church (Herefordshire), the choir-stalls of Winchester Cathedral, the passage to the chapter-house at York Minster, and many others.

Their history is well established. They reached England early in the 12th century from France, as part of a repertoire of grotesque figures in the style called ‘Romanesque’ on the Continent and ‘Norman’ in England; typical examples can be seen at Kilpeck (Herefordshire) and Iffley (Oxfordshire). The continental Romanesque foliate heads, though stylized and distorted, were ultimately derived from the dignified leaf-masks of late Roman art, representing gods and supernatural beings (Oceanus, Silenus, Dryads, etc.). When Gothic style replaced Norman, foliate heads became ever more varied, subtle, and realistic, some being strikingly beautiful, while others had the glaring eyes and snarling mouths of demons; identifiable leaves were shown, with oak, hawthorn and ivy being particularly favoured. The carvings thus combined two favourite subjects of medieval artists, foliage and the human face, and were very popular from the 13th to the 15th centuries.

Interpretation is far more problematic than history. Medieval writers expound the moral and religious symbolism of many art motifs in considerable detail, but only one ascribes a moral meaning to greenery—the theologian Rabanus Maurus (784–856) said leafy sprays symbolized fleshly lusts and depraved men heading for damnation, and cited texts from Ezekiel and Job in support (Basford, 1978: 12). The heads themselves vary greatly in expression; some look serene, others gloomy, angry, threatening, mocking, sick, or anguished, and some also stick out their tongues. It is most unlikely that they all conveyed the same meaning, and no source ascribes any name to them. Throughout Britain, their context has been distorted by the Protestant destruction of the sacred images to which they were originally subordinated. For example, a foliate head supporting the pedestal of a saint's statue might have been ‘read’ as meaning that holiness is achieved by subduing mere nature; now that the head alone survives, it assumes an independent importance its carver never intended.

Modern theories begin with Lady Raglan's literalist view that medieval artists only drew what they had seen in real life—in this case, she claimed, a leaf-clad mummer like a Jack-in-the-Green enacting a spring fertility ritual. She is followed by Sheridan and Ross (1975) who see secretly surviving paganism as the explanation, not only for this but for many motifs in medieval art; this idea, though it lacks supporting evidence and contradicts the known history of the motif, is currently the favourite among popular writers and neo-pagans.


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