Foliage sprouting from or surrounding a human face is one of the most common images in folklore. They are also found in churches, though often with humorous or folkloric elements, especially on misericords. This leads to a lot of chicken and egg arguments as to their origins. Here’s a few images I’ve collected.
This is from a church porch, the boundary between sacred and secular space, at Whitminster, Gloucestershire.
Not far away is this bat-like version from Dumbleton church in the Cotswolds. Image courtesy of Kirsty Hartsiotis
This is a bench end in Bristol’s Lord Mayors Chapel across from the Cathedral
These are misericords from Wakefield Cathedral.
Misericord from Hereford Cathedral looking very modern and alive
I can’t recall the site of this one in Hereford.
This is from Aston Hall near Birmingham
This is a medieval one from the Bishop’s Palace, Wells
This is from Little Wadingfield, Suffolk. Permission from John Vigar.
This is an unusual one with foliage from nose only. In St Mary’s Temple Balsall, Warwickshire. Reproduced with permission.
This is from Brecon Cathedral in Wales. Not as green as the rest and the stuff on its head is hard to make sense of but still the same concept
This is a wonderfully weird bench end from Crowcombe in Somerset courtesy of Liam Simms
This is from rainwater goods at Bodleian Library, Oxford. Seems to be an imp. Interesting as green not from inside man but seems to be eaten by him. Image courtesy of Cathy Rosamond Stillman-Lowe
And from the same source, this is at Christ Church College, Oxford
These from the National Trust’s Tredegar House near Newport are more like masks used in pantomimes or in early theatrical masques.
These are from the 14th century sedillia at Thompson, Norfolk. Courtesy of Simon Knott
Here’s a rather miserable or perhaps distracted one. From Grange Court, Leominster
But the ones that intrigue me the most are the earliest as they suggest a common source for both folklore and Christian imagery.
I can’t recall the source that claimed they were the result of the plague. That unburied bodies decayed & provided nutrients for plants to grow through them. This makes sense to me as Until the 19th century England was predominantly rural, with many people living in small hamlets. It would be easy for a new illness to kill the able bodied, leaving survivors too weak to bury them.
The greenery would be especially dramatic if the dead person died on chalk uplands where grass was scarce or on rocky ground or a road.
The collection in the 13th century lady chapel of Bristol Cathedral seem to support this idea as foliage heads include animals as well as humans. One seems to show foliage emerging from a bearded man.
What do you think?
The one below is part of a memorial to the Berkley family showing the image to be accepted in public Christian art. Man seems to be resting very peacefully.