Death and the Green Man

Basil is looking for the Green Man across the globe…being of the opinion that our interfaces with nature are irritants across many cultures.  Irritants that make oysters create pearls.  Irritants that are never solved.  Being of the opinion that no culture lives in “harmony” with nature. (Sorry Rousseau.)  And that cultures around the world have tried everything from domination and extirpation to complete surrender to handle it.


Madonna and Child with Saints, altarpiece c.1520, Girolamo Dai Libri (Italian Veronese, 1474-75, 1555), tempera and oil on canvas. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

This painting at the Met is usually explained as having to do with death and resurrection (the dead tree, the burgeoning green one, a peacock as bird of resurrection perched on the lifeless limb) – all central Christian issues. Why else would the Mary and the Christ Child be so subordinate visually to this great green growth? To this marvelous and hypnotic tree?

What you see as you look up at this  is TREE – both dead and alive. It’s not clear to me that there are two trees. It’s a laurel, known to have both living and dead parts. Even if there are two of them, here they are as close as the twins of a single impulse. And that peacock, large, silent, with tail relaxed, not displayed—has quiet green highlights around the eyes on its tail.

I’m thinking the Green Man is often “explained” as a holdover from the religions that  preceded and were overwhelmed by Christianity.  The Green Man pops up, carved by the odd rebellious craftsman at work on a church ceiling or in the corner just by the last pew. A holdover. A bit like the foxes that still live in Central Park.

But I’m thinking it’s possible to consider the tree in dai Libri’s altarpiece a Green Man. Not hidden or even cryptic but towering, full of force, and most of all representing life that is not “our” human life.   The aliens are here already.  And they have always been. What’s more it’s our life and our death that literally depend on them.


One comment

Comments are closed.