Broughton, Buckinghamshire (†CCT*) C.15
St Helena, St Eloi and Blacksmith’s Tools
The painting has, undeniably, been thoroughly restored – rather too enthusiastically, some would say – but I think much of the rather sentimental charm is probably original. The two saints, Helena on the left, stand against a diapered background, surrounded by a scrollwork border. Below them is a cluster of blacksmith’s tools and products of the forge, including many keys and padlocks (interestingly, the OED gives 1478 as the first known usage of this latter word) along with horse-trappings complete with horse (at the right) and much else.
All of these, shown here against a squared pattern suggesting a chequered floor, are attributes of St Eloi, who was a blacksmith and goldsmith in his earlier life, before he became eventually bishop of Noyon in France.
St Helena holds her own attribute, a Tau cross representing the True Cross she was said to be largely responsible for finding. It was firmly believed in medieval England that Helena, mother of the first Christian Emperor Constantine, was an English princess – a daughter of the legendary King Coel of Colchester – in fact she was born at Drepanum, later Helenopolis, in Bithynia. Although she is painted as a youthful virgin here, Helena, born a pagan, became a Christian only in her sixties, and proved exceptionally devout and generous to churches and to the poor. I know of no specific connection between her and St Eloi that would account for their pairing at Broughton, but it may be that since Eloi was a particularly eloquent denouncer of vestigial paganism, both saints were seen as defenders of Christianity. Or perhaps the fact that the two have homophonically similar names has something to do with it.
All of the paintings at Broughton are now on the site. Here are links to St George and the Dragon, The Warning to Swearers and the Doom.