There are several Green men carved in the stonework of St. Chad’s. One is visible in the sanctuary at the left side of the altar. Green men, faces sprouting greenery from their mouths are common in Norman churches. They are often claimed to be pagan survivals.
The Green Man
Whatever the origin of the Green Man it had a particular meaning in a Christian context in the twelfth century. It is a representation of Adam, as the first man, and is quite clearly intended to be this at Kilpeck. It has a very good reason to be near the altar.
The most common version of the legend tells that Adam, exiled from paradise, sent his son into the Garden to fetch a branch from the Tree of Mercy. This was planted in his mouth when Adam died. (There are variations of this, and the tree might equally have sprung from the pips of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which caused the fall of Man.)
The tree that sprung from Adam’s mouth finally provided the wood of the cross. Thus the cause of the Fall of Man leads directly to the cause of Man’s redemption. At Kilpeck the tree becomes the “Tree of Jesse”, the image of the ancestry of Jesus. Thus the Green Man has every reason to be placed near the altar.
The celebration of the Mass takes place in the very heart of nature, just as the altar of St Chad’s is approached through carvings of the natural world. This is why it is common, and appropriate, for church decorations, to emphasize the natural world in all its beauty and pain (one thinks of the carving of the man with toothache in Wells Cathedral), around the sanctuary.
The Severed Head
It’s possible to see something you haven’t seen before even when you’ve been coming to St. Chad’s for years. One of the oddest stone carvings is at the foot of the arch on the north side. It’s a large grotesque head. Some people call it Orm’s Head. This is a mystery, and suggests all kinds of folklore and mythology. It seems to guard the entrance to the choir and sanctuary, or does it represent evil conquered? There is no matching carving on the opposite side, but at the top of the south side pillar of the arch is a carving of a small figure standing with arms outstretched. a close look shows he is standing on an upside down severed head.
This seems mysterious, but the obvious interpretation is that this is David standing over the severed head of Goliath. It matches the biblical account. (1 Samuel 17:51) exactly. David “stood upon the Philistine” and took Goliath’s sword and cut off Goliath’s head. David took the head back to Jerusalem.
The head at the opposite side would then appear also to be Goliath’s head.
If these carvings represent David and Goliath the bizarre warriors on the columns can only be the Philistine army. They cover their faces or raise their hands in horror. The tiny figure of the shepherd David, the harpist and singer of psalms, is victorious over the giant and his army.
These are the only carvings in the church with a biblical theme, and have a significant position on the arch which divides the body of the church from the holiest part. David was the ancestor of Jesus, the great king and psalmist who was an earthly prototype, as King of Israel, of Jesus. The image of David killing Goliath, as a young boy, using only his slingshot, was a symbol of Jesus defeating the “King of this World” in his resurrection. In this way the image of David, and the severed head of Goliath is a very unusual but very appropriate symbol at the gateway to the holy altar.
This appears to be a unique feature in St Chad’s. It may be that the story of David and the Philistine Army had a special significance to Orm, if he had been a knight in the Crusades as the legend has it. This significant feature, as far as we know, has never been mentioned in print before, and may not have been recognised since the twelfth century.