Medieval and Renaissance - CONNECTIONS

The Green Man

© Charles Vess: Green Man Press

Search the hidden corners of English, French, or German Gothic churches, and you'll often find the Green Man. It's a composite of face and foliage--an image that appears in dozens of forms. Often a face of the Green Man (or Green Woman) is a mask made entirely of leaves; other times the face may be surrounded or transformed by leaves and vines.

Typically Green Man figures are carved in stone or wood; they also may be crafted in stained glass or inked in the style of illuminated manuscripts.

Over 2000 Green Man images have been identified in England alone. They can be found on any surface that's open to ornamentation: capitals, corbels, choir stalls, fonts, screens, or roof bosses.

Some of the earliest Green Men have been traced to ancient Rome. In pre-Christian religions, trees were held sacred, forest groves were perceived as the dwelling place of gods, goddesses, and a wide variety of nature spirits. Some scholars believe Bacchus or Dionysus to be the Green Man of the Greco-Roman period. Known widely as a god of ecstasy and divine rapture, he was also the god of vegetation.

The Green Man is often perceived as an ancient Celtic symbol. In Celtic mythology, he is a god of spring and summer. He disappears and returns year after year, century after century, enacting themes of death and resurrection, the ebb and flow of life and creativity. The Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain, The Green Knight, is a notable image of the Green Man from the Middle Ages. Gawain had a green helmet, green armor, green shield... even a green horse. When he was decapitated, he continued to live.

Given the church's condemnation of the old pagan gods, the last place you'd expect to find Green Man is within the Christian places of worship. Nevertheless his face appears again and again. This may be the church's attempt to "make safe" those elements of paganism it failed to stamp out. The motif of rebirth clearly has Christian applications that provided the Green Man protective status within the cathedrals. Perhaps, also, the Green Man was a talisman to encourage new fertility and growth of the church as well as its constituents.

The Green Man has been suppressed and reinvented throughout history. He was banned during the Reformation, but appeared on 17th century memorials and is found on 18th century Scottish gravestones. In the Victorian era, The Green Man was used as an architectural motif from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east. At this time he played a major role in church restorations and as a decorative motif on street architecture. The 20th Century Green Man stands as a modern ecological symbol as well as a model of godhood and nurturance within the male.

The Assignment
The Green Man has captured the imagination of artists throughout history. This motif bridges past and present, connects the Christian world to ancient Celtic mythology, and represents the intersection of modern man and the natural world. Your assignment is to create your own two- dimensional Green Man or Green Woman. This foliate-figure should combine leaves and growing forms with a human face, and through, line, form, and use of monochromatic color it should clearly symbolize the concepts of renewal and regeneration.

A lesson plan for middle through high school
  • Students will learn about the creative process through experimentation.
  • Students will explore the idea of symbolism through art.

Time frame: two to three 45-minute class periods

Core content for Assessment:

Middle School

High School

Academic Expectations 2.22, 2.23, 2.24, 2.25

Questions to Guide Instruction
  1. What are the origins of the Green Man?
  2. How are birth and regeneration symbolized in various Green Man figures?
  3. How can I select materials to best represent my Green Man?
  4. What is monochromatic color and why is it appropriate for this project?
  5. How can I use line to make my Green Man distinctive?
  6. How is my Green Man best displayed?

Instructional Strategies and Activities

Materials for part 1: Choosing a subject. Your subject is a foliate (leaf) face... but sketching a face may be a challenge. Magazines with simple photographic subjects may help you position your face and begin your sketch.

Materials for part 2: Monochromatic wash drawing of a foliate face. Hot pressed watercolor paper or illustration board. An array of green colors: yellow-greens, brown-greens, blue-greens, greens tempered with red.

Materials for part 3: Ultra-fine permanent markers (such as Pilot Razor-points) for highlighting or emphasizing parts of the wash drawing. Mat board or mounting board for displaying finished product.

Day 1 Getting Started
Begin by assembling your first materials:

Make three or four rough sketches of a face using pencil or very light wash. Experiment with faces of different ages, and faces positioned in different ways on your paper. (It may help to turn through magazines and look at faces and to experiment in using the paper in different ways.)

Pick your most original, most interesting sketch, keeping in mind that your Green Man, like the ancient prototypes, symbolizes growth and regeneration.

Completing your wash drawing
Using layers of very light, monochromatic hues, (such as yellow-green, blue-green, brown-green) complete your first study of a Green Man. Remember to keep the paint highly transparent, because you'll be adding dark lines for emphasis.

Keep in mind that your assignment is to show growth and regenation through your Green Man. The art element of color (hue) will dominate this work, but careful use of shape and texture will make your work more powerful. Work from very light to darker value. You may want to let each layer dry before completing the next layer. You may want to leave some white space for emphasis. Be sure your wash drawing is completely dry before going on to the next step.

Day 2 Adding lines for emphasis:

Adding fine lines to your Green Man will make him come alive! How do you decide where to place your lines? Consider that some parts of your painting are more successful in terms of the art elements--where is space used successfully? Where are the most interesting textures? Where are the monochromatic greens most clear, interesting, transparent and (above all) varied? Use your fine-point pen to emphasize these areas. You may use parallel lines, dots, create an overlay of texture and convey concepts of growing and rebirth through your Green Man.

At the end of class, or the next day:
Mount your drawings on board or construction paper, choosing colors that emphasize the best areas of your work. Place on display, write a critique or discuss with class using the criteria for assessment below. See examples below, with critiques.

Assessment levels and criteria for each

Your teacher may want you to stick to these instructions, or may encourage you to experiment with a wider range of media. Liz's Green Man is developed from the assignment. Here are some additional ideas from Abby and Nicole.

LIZ's Green Man ABBY's Green Man NICOLE's Green Man

For more on THE GREEN MAN, visit these sites

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