All Things Green Man & The Traditional Jack-in-the-Green

The Green Man: A powerful image lives on – Muriel Fraser

We all know how fast and far a good tune can travel. Shortly after the haunting melody of “Lili Marleen” was heard broadcast to among German troops in WWII, it was eagerly adopted by Allied ones. And think, too, of the travels of a song which began as “God preserve Franz the Kaiser”. This lovely tune by Haydn was recycled as “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” and eventually appeared as the hymn, “God who touches earth with beauty”.

Just as a catchy tune travels, so does a powerful image. The ornate leaf masks or foliated heads, now often called the “Green Man”, were developed by Roman artists in connection with nature gods like Dionysus and the satyrs. But this image was too good to end with Roman paganism. In the Middle Ages, as the pageants of chivalry became widespread, Green Men appear with increasing frequency in Christian churches, too.

A clue to this is offered by a ritual from 16th-century Sweden. There we find a May Day jousting contest between Winter and Summer. The idea was to dramatise — and help advance — the coming of spring. The two sides in the tournament were clothed accordingly. Duke Winter was “clad in various pelts and armed with pokers, scattering ice and snowballs to prolong the cold”. His opponent, Count Floral, was “garbed in the green boughs of trees, together with leaves and flowers”. Of course, whatever the weather on the day of the tournament, “and to everyone’s joy, the victory is awarded to Summer”. [1]

This gives us a glimpse into the mediaeval meaning of faces decked with foliage. No longer were they Roman gods, but harbingers of spring. And, of course, spring in the metaphorical sense, was a central theme in Christianity. It applied to both the rebirth of the soul in heaven and the general Resurrection of the Dead. As such, the foliated head had a firm claim to its place in Christian churches.

But the transformations didn’t end there. The Green Man could represent, not only the resurrection of the soul, but also the rebirth of the Christianity during the Reformation. This seems to be why the Reformers adopted it initially. (However, they soon backed off from this transformed satyr. After all, they were the ones who liked to accuse the Catholic Church of being “pagan”.)  But at first, presumably as a symbol of the rebirth of the church, a Green Man appears in a portrait of Martin Luther by Cranach the Elder, also on the title page of Luther’s petition to the Papal Council in 1520, and even in his church in Wittenburg. [2]

Mediaeval people loved symbols precisely because they regarded them as having magic power. This symbol is simple, vivid, and closely connected to people’s hopes and fears: to their longing for the return of the sun — to a “springtime” through resurrection — and, for some, to a new and reformed Christianity. It’s no wonder that the Green Man, in its various guises, survived for two millenia.

1. Olaus Magnus, Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), Volume 2, 15:9.
2. Clive Hicks,

8 responses

  1. Thank you for a lovely brief and concise insight into the origins of The Green Man.

    Jul 1, 2016 at 8:47 am

  2. I can’t find the Cranach the elder portrait of Luther inc a green man. I’d love it if you’d include a link!

    Jul 1, 2016 at 12:47 pm

  3. Hi Roddy,

    I’ve managed to find the images via a Google search but I would rather not include any links to any sites that might not be particularly secure. If anyone knows of any reputable sites that hold these images please do let me know and I’ll add the links.

    Jul 1, 2016 at 2:25 pm

  4. Duncan Saunders greenmanharper

    While I understand the need for secure links, perhaps just the words that were used in the google search could be shared so we can do our own seeking. I just spent some time on Google images with various search terms, but was unable to find the image(s) that you did. I am most interested in viewing them!!

    Jul 1, 2016 at 3:01 pm

  5. Hi Duncan, great idea, I used “Portrait of Martin Luther by Cranach the Elder” and “Title page of Luther’s petition to the Papal Council in 1520”

    The portrait green man that I found might be better described as a green beast. You need to scroll past the standard portraits until you find the image of Luther in a pulpit. The beast is on the bottom of the pulpit.

    Jul 1, 2016 at 4:12 pm

  6. Here’s a safe link to the whole picture on wikimedia

    Jul 2, 2016 at 8:32 am

  7. And on this page from Harvard’s theological library is a copy of the title page of: Martin Luther An den Christlichenn Adel deutscher Nation: von des Christlichen standes besserung. Durch yhn selbs gemehret vnd corrigirt. Wittenberg

    The library’s copy is a second printing of a revised edition issued in the same year as the original.

    Jul 2, 2016 at 8:59 am

  8. I can’t find any pictures of green men in Luther’s Church but there are lots of very high quality pictures of All Saints Church in Wittenberg online. If anyone fancies spending some time playing out own very specialized version of Where’s Wally please feel free

    Jul 2, 2016 at 9:12 am

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