Design icons: the Green Man

From my regular series for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. The Green Man was broadcast on Saturday 8th October 2022. You can hear the audio here.


The Green Man is a symbol that has cropped up in buildings for centuries but nobody really knows what he means.

Commonly used in architectural decoration, the face of a man emerges, surrounded by leaves, sometimes spewing vegetation from his mouth. This foliate head is found throughout Britain and Northern Europe, often in medieval churches, carved into the wood of choir stalls or on the painted roof bosses high above the congregation. Human figures clad in leaves appeared in decorative objects in the Roman Empire, and even decorated temples across the Middle East. It’s possible that this imagery might have been taken back to Europe by crusaders. But what does he symbolise exactly?

The link to nature is evident. Which makes some see him as a symbol of fertility, like Dionysus in Ancient Greece, and Bacchus in Ancient Rome, and linked to Demeter and Ceres, the goddesses aligned with harvest. But the Green Man carvings often have an unsettling expression, sometimes ghoulish, like a naughty wood spirit in the tradition of Pan. So why would an apparently pagan symbol appear in so many churches? Perhaps he’s linked to the Green Knight of the famous Arthurian tale, written in the late 1400s, in which a mysterious man of the woods sets a challenge that leads Sir Gawain to become a better man. 

In 1939 Julia Somerset, Lady Raglan, wrote an essay, The Green Man in Church Architecture, for Folklore magazine. It came at a time when the world was about to enter an almighty conflict. How calming, therefore, to reflect on a bucolic past, so removed from the brutal world of planes and tanks. Her term Green Man was embraced, especially by Niklaus Pevsner in his 46-volume Buildings of England series, published through the 1950s to 1970s. This brought into focus the wealth of Green Man carvings, such as how over a hundred of them are carved into the seats and stone of the Lady Chapel at Roslyn Chapel outside Edinburgh (the one that figured in Dan Brown’s conspiratorial novel).

They were also popular with Arts and Crafts designers in the nineteenth century who fell upon this striking symbol of the middle ages and carved his face into drawers or cupboard doors, bringing a touch of the chapel into the home. As with Lady Raglan’s essay, this harking back to a bygone age was deliberate, downplaying the increasing industrialisation of everything, including furniture making. And while having a leafy face peer at you from your furniture might seem a mite spooky, it’s no more so than having a portrait painting on your wall.

The popularity of the Green Man has persisted, and not just as the name of numerous pubs across Britain. The emerging New Age movement of the 1960s and the queer Radical Faeries in the late 1970s celebrated the link to nature and the Green Man’s illusive identity. While we accept the imaginary nature of mermaids and centaurs, the Green Man seems apart from them, a mystery that is at once confronting and comforting, like the craggy Ents that guard the forest in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. The nearest we’ve come to replicating the oddness of the Green Man appearing in strange places is the street art by artists who leave video game symbols on street buildings to be discovered by happenstance. Whatever the Green Man actually means, as we become more ecologically aware, perhaps we’ll see more Green Man carvings emerge again in our furniture and our buildings, emblems of the hope we hold for the future of the planet.

Categories: Architecture, Design, Icons, radioTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. How fascinating! I’ve seen that face hundreds of times by doors and fountains, yet never known the story or the name. The Green Man would indeed be the perfect icon for a new green wave!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

La petite musique des vendredis

Le blog culturel d'Hélène Cascaro- arts visuels, cinéma, patrimoine, artisanat d'art, architecture,...


This site is the bee's knees

Avisha Rasminda

Hi, I'm Avisha Rasminda Twenty-Two years old, Introduce Myself As A Author , Painter , A Poet.

Ananda Only

an empty space between silence & stillness

A r e w e t h e r e y e t ?

Diversions, detours and discoveries

Nick Alexander

Author of Perfectly Ordinary People, From Something Old, The Road to Zoe, You Then Me Now, Things We Never Said, The Bottle of Tears, The Other Son, The Photographer's Wife, The Half-Life of Hannah, the 50 Reasons Series. And more...

Dr David T Evans, OBE NTF PFHEA RN(T)

Sexual health matters! It really does!

Dr. Eric Perry’s Blog

Motivate | Inspire | Uplift

Cole Moreton

Writer and broadcaster, Interviewer of the Year for the Mail, winner of Radio Academy gold with BBC Radio 4

British Wildlife & Photography

Place, Plots and Plans

The PlaceMatt Blog

viewer site

Barbara Heath & Malcolm Enright - our viewer site blog

kirilson photography

the stories behind the pictures, and vice versa

Not-So-Modern Girl

Thoughts of a twenty-something girl navigating her way one blog post at a time

Anthony Hillin

Training, Facilitation and Policy development

Notes from the U.K.

Exploring the spidery corners of a culture and the weird stuff that tourist brochures ignore.


T.V/Movie News & Reviews

SAVING OUR TREES - Marrickville municipality

Community Tree Watch - working to protect healthy public trees in Marrickville municipality from inappropriate removal


Film Score Reviews by Jonathan Broxton since 1997

A life in books

Book news, reviews and recommendations

150 great things about the Underground

An unofficial birthday salute to a public transport titan

Mistakes & Adventures

What I've always wanted


Literary Geography

UNSW Built Environment's Blog

Information from students and staff at Built Environment at the University of New South Wales, Sydney Australia.

joe moran's words

on the everyday, the banal and other important matters

The Back Road Chronicles

Curious soul...and it makes me wanna take the back roads!


My occasionally weird life in France

Wee Notions

Notes on a napkin

Philip Butler Photography

Architecture & Observations

Susie Trexler

Secret Knowledge of Spaces

Rebecca Renner

Welcome to Gator Country

kidlat habagat

Portraits of Urban life


DynamicStasis is basically an attempt to think about and discuss integrity, beauty, and delight - in architecture and elsewhere.

%d bloggers like this: