The Poringland Oak is a renowned picture by the Norfolk artist John Crome, who was part of the Norwich School. This group of artists, including Crome, anticipated Constable by rejecting classicism and focusing on depicting realistic landscapes and everyday individuals. The image, created in 1818, features a youthful, upright, and sparsely branching oak tree as its focal point. It emerges next to a pond where four village children are either bathing or wading. The individuals are partially dressed and have their backs turned to the observer, enhancing their rustic casualness. The existence of the tree is still unknown.

An oak tree by a pond in Poringland, a village south of Norwich, is said to have been growing for a number of centuries and is seen by some locals as a potential contender to be Crome’s tree. The area surrounding the pond has been urbanized, and a tree stands tall in the yard of a contemporary, bungalow-sized Free Church with an adjoining cafĂ©, reminiscent of Crome’s popular style. Upon observation, I am impressed by the stark contrast between it and Kett’s. The trunk remains as straight as the oak in Crome’s painting and is graceful enough to resemble a beech tree from afar. Its structure is ideal for a landscape garden or arboretum, representing the epitome of a tree.

Kett’s and Crome’s oaks symbolize two cultural archetypes: the everyday oak found in common areas, and the oak associated with pastoral tranquility. The third significant Norfolk oak is located on the ceiling of Norwich Cathedral cloisters. The Green Man is depicted with a face that is expanding, featuring delicate details and long hair. Strictly speaking, it is not an oak tree, but rather four oak leaves. However, they seem as separate trees. The leaves are attached to stems that are as thick as tree trunks, with crimped edges and gold leaf accents, giving the impression that the entire tree is already adorned with the magnificent colors of autumn. This is the legendary oak symbolizing creativity.
The Poringland Oak is a renowned picture by the Norfolk artist John Crome, who was part of the Norwich School
There are eight further instances of foliate heads in the cloisters, although not all of them include oak leaves. A person who looks like a gigolo is wearing a mask made of golden hawthorn leaves. Another depiction is mischievously evil, including unrecognizable leaf shapes growing next to a tongue from a sinister face with prominent eyebrows, resembling the well-known Green Man motif. The foliate head is a varied and enduring symbol, whose significance has been debated for over a millennium. The image depicts a human head adorned, shadowed by, or sometimes made of leaves, with leaves sprouting from, or possibly merging with, its ears, nostrils, and mouth. The varying viewpoints on the two prepositional options demonstrate the range of interpretations that the Green Man image might evoke. The skull can represent several concepts such as the devil, death, rebirth, the connection between humans and nature, or just serve as a recurring theme in cartoons.

The oldest versions originate from the transition between prehistoric and recorded history. Cernunnos is depicted with foliage as his hair in Celtic art. Byzantine capitals from the sixth century feature acanthus leaves on their heads. The earliest depiction in a Christian location seems to be on the tomb of St. Abre (now housed in Poitiers), dating back to the fourth or fifth century. The newest Green Men, with a strong wood flavor, can be bought as plaster replicas for interior decoration, adding to a traditional English ambiance along with actual ale bottles and cricket pictures. Classic Green Men are mostly found in abundance in churches in northern Europe from the tenth to the seventeenth century and hold a religious significance, but their exact interpretation may vary.

Interpretations of the Green Man are typically either serious or joyful. In her renowned work “The Green Man” (1978), Kathleen Basford interprets foliate heads as primarily cautionary symbols representing the allure of the material world. She attributes this symbolism to the renowned eighth-century theologian Rabanus Maurus, who associated leaves with sins of the flesh or lustful and sinful individuals destined for damnation. They opposed immoral speech and indecent visuals.

William Anderson’s academic and pantheist Green Man (1990) is inclusive and tolerant, unlike others. The figure is viewed as a global symbol, as shown by the subtitle of his book, “An Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth.” He observes noticeable alterations in the design of the heads over time and in relation to the physical architecture of the Church. The earliest appear the most diabolical. The expressions are consistently intense. They exhibit open jaws, exposed teeth, and protruding tongues. During the Renaissance, sculptures started to depict more realistic and lifelike characteristics as the heads became more malleable. The vegetation more frequently encircles the face rather than emerging from its openings. They can be located in many scenarios within churches. Anderson proposes that when placed near the choir, the leaves symbolize the proclamation of the Word through singing or recitation. Above entrances for the living and exits for the deceased, there may be memento mori, serving as reminders of the transient nature of life.

However, formulaic explanations are inadequate for the diverse range of forms and clever positioning of leaf-shaped decorations. They are located in elevated areas near gargoyles and concealed beneath choir benches. The carvings demonstrate the significant impact of the individual carver’s creativity and personal sense of humor or respect. Green Men are parodies of village elders that serve as terrible symbols of doom and creative visual gags. A stunning fourteenth-century carving at Sutton Benger church in Wiltshire depicts a face showing patient resignation, with hawthorn blossoms coming from its lips, where two thrushes are feeding on berries. At the church in Brome, Suffolk, there is a mason’s carving of a distinguished albeit somewhat plain foliate face, alongside a creative arrangement of oak leaves that resemble eye holes in a carnival mask.

Throughout Europe, I have observed numerous Green Men and believe that they evolved over time into a versatile design element, a symbol possessing the enduring allure of the chimera, and a captivating motif for stone sculptors. Many were likely built with religious or spiritual intentions, while others may have been made for mischief or decoration, or simply because they felt fitting for a specific location in a church. Some of them seem to be used as vases to hold the stone flora that wraps around the walls.