05 December 2010

Green Men

Pantanassa, Mistra

The Green Man -- or Wild Man or Woodwose --is a creature of European folklore and imagery, found frequently in churches.  He does not seem to appear in Greece without a special invitation.  I have been trying to spot Green Men, and I have found a very few. There is an enormous literature on Green Men in western Europe, which I would like to avoid here, and I will define a Green Man as an image of a face with leaves, usually coming out of its mouth.  I have these here for the pleasure of them, but this would be a fine topic for someone's formal study.

The first two Green Men in Greece -- that survive: surely there were others -- appeared in the 13th century, in monastic buildings built by Westerners.  This first is a finial in a corner behind the iconostasis of Ag. Pareskevi, in Halkis

Ag. Pareskevi, Halkis

This next was found in the ruins of the Cistercian monastery of Zaraka, built by monks from northern France, and has been removed to the museum of Chlemoutzi.  


He is strikingly like a Green Man found in the notebooks of Villard de Honnecourt, who drew several.  Villard also lived in the 13th century and was  from northern France.

 Villard de Honnecourt

Then there was a gap of nearly two hundred years before they appeared in 1428 in the Pantanassa.  Earlier they were faces in their own right.  Now in the Pantanassa, they are startlingly used as decorations for the evangelists in squinches under a dome.  Three groups have survived: one is shown at the beginning.  The groups were supposed to have three Green Men each, one on either side of the evangelist, and one beneath:

 Pantanassa, Mistra

Here the lower Green Man is badly damaged but he survives in the third cluster.

 Pantanassa, Mistra

Did these Green Men come from western influences, or had the painter seen the frescos in the Chora in Constantinople where they decorate the Virgin and child, and an angel, in a dome?

  Kariye Cami, Istanbul

In the picture below, where the Virgin is reversed, there is one Green Man just to the lower left corner of the picture, and then a whole line of them running down from the center.
Green Men, Kariye Cami, Istanbul
Finally, there is an unlikely trio of Green Men in Nauplion.  The first two, which can be dated exactly to 1708, appear at the top and the base of the carved shield of Francisco Grimani, Captain-General of the Fleet.  The shield has little cannon off the bottom corners.

Grimani shield, storage yard of Nauplion museum

The third, my favorite appears on a wooden door panel on the main street.  I have watched, over the years, thousands of people walk past and never look at this marvel of survival.

  Nauplion door

I would be delighted to know of sightings of more Greek Green Men.

Thanks to Henry Maguire who told me about the Green Men at the Kariye Cami.


  1. Most interesting blog, thank you!
    I wonder though if there might be another extraction of the wooden Green Man at the Nauplio door as a relic of the Bavarian regency of Otto von Wittelsbach and many Bavarians living in the Greek capital Nauplio in the years 1832-34.
    A wooden "Mandl" (little man) looking kind of sturdy is still a piece of decoration in/at houses/farm buildings etc. in Bavaria and the alps countries.
    Venetian and Turkish houses were restored then and ruins of the war reconstructed to accommodate Bavarians (like the Armansperg's residence at the bus station)and new ones built in expectation of good and safe rental income. (When Athens became the new capital and everybody moved there in Dec. 1834 the naupliot landlords lost their incomes all at once.)
    I imagine there had not only been Bavarian decorations inside the homes, so maybe this special Green Man is of Bavarian origin? What do you think?

  2. That is quite reasonable. I am having trouble thinking of Venetian Green Men at all, & wonder if anyone has seen them in Venice?

  3. I find I have photographs of three Green Men from the Rimondi Fountain in Rethymon, ca. 1626. Leaves and waterspouts in the mouths.

  4. Now this is amazing. The Rimondi fountain was a very close environment for me for about 2 years in the early 80ies, when Rena Magiafa started her work as the Rethymnon preservationist and the fountain was not yet restored.
    I always believed these were supposed to be 3 LIONS, made by a sculptor who had no clear idea what a lion looks like (like Chinese lions) and who put some nice phantasy into his work.
    I just checked new pohotos of the Rimondi on FLickr - you're right, this looks more like leaves than lion's phantasies. I'm thunderstruck.

  5. In Cyprus, church in the fields near Khirokhitia. May have been brought to island by Templars. Pictures at end of this short film, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vt_3Aa0odWw&feature=youtu.be


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