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Sutton Benger - I

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Type: Foliage-spewer
Location: Church of All Saints
OS GR: ST 947786
Period: Thirteenth-century
Medium: Stone carving
Foliage: Hawthorn leaves and berries
Mood: Thoughtful, melancholy, patient
The Hawthorn King

Variously described as 'superb' (Pevsner), 'probably the finest of British green men' (Hicks)', 'perhaps one of the great works of art of Western Europe' (Harding), this is probably the best-known of all English green men, and deservedly so.  The stone-carver who created him was a master of his craft.  Yet we do not find this stunning green man in a cathedral, or even a large parish church, but in the small village church of Sutton Benger, north of Chippenham.   The rest of the church's interior - apart from three more pieces of carving clearly by the same craftsman - is pleasant but unremarkable.  We are all the more struck, then, by the power and complexity of this striking, thoughtful and somewhat melancholy image.

As we enter the church, we  see the green man ahead and to our left, at the west end of the south aisle, supporting the arch of the colonnade.  Set against the simplicity of the bare white wall, the rich carving is quite startling.   We are drawn first to look at the face, thoughtful, melancholy, his forehead creased with the strain of carrying all the foliage rippling forth from his half-open mouth.  Our eyes are next drawn by the sweep of the branches out and up into his crown, where we see leaves, berries, and, uniquely, birds feasting on the berries.   The foliage is naturally portrayed, although at a much larger scale than the face and the birds.  The birds too are perhaps identifiable: their speckled breasts suggest they are thrushes.   Our Forest Lord seems resigned to his situation, at once burdened and crowned with his great garland of fruit and foliage. 

The carving dates apparently from the thirteenth century.  Some have suggested that the extreme expressiveness of the face, with its naturalistic features, indicates that it was recut in the nineteenth century.   Certainly it is much more natural-looking that the bulk of mediaeval faces we see in our churches.  We cannot discount the possibility that when the church was being refurbished in the Victorian period, someone was tempted to 'improve' the features and make them a little more modern, a little more pleasing to the modern eye.

Yet, as Clive Hicks notes, the features are bumped and damaged, as they would not have been if recut by the tidy-minded Victorians.  And the Victorian green men on the exterior of the church do not show the same sureness of hand or complexity of expression. 

Who knows?  In any case, it matters little.  He is superb, and those who seek him out will see in him what they most desire him to be: Lord of the Greenwood, Hawthorn King, nature spirit crept into church, sorrowful sinner suffering the consequences of his unrestrained lusts, or simply a most splendid example of this enigmatic and ubiquitous motif.

 

 

Also at Sutton Benger

  • Five more green men
  • An immense pig gargoyle

Design by Black Cat Folklore
Page created on 27 May 2007.  Last updated on 10 June 2007

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