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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Charlwood, Surrey (†Southwark) C.14

The Three Living & Three Dead

Three Living & Three Dead, Charlwood

A now unique remaining English example (that at Belton having been destroyed) of the Three Living on horseback, which was the usual way of painting them in France but certainly not in England, where they are most commonly out hawking on foot. The painting is faint now, and this photograph leaves something to be desired, but the important details are visible. There are three mounted figures here, but the second of the Three Living is between and behind the other two, making him difficult to see. All three men are crowned, and the leading figure holds something like a sceptre. The two groups have evidently seen each other simultaneously – the central figure in the group of grimly skeletal dead is gesturing towards the kings as the leading king points out the Three Dead. The horrible grins of the Dead are not simply there to frighten, but as JC Wall pointed out,¹ their open mouths indicate speech (as indeed does the upraised finger of the central dead figure), and no doubt they are uttering their message of warning, as in the examples at Heydon and Wensley (in the table below), although if there were any speech-scrolls, they have gone now. Something strap-like and difficult to account for otherwise projects from the shoulder of the leading king in Wall’s drawing. It might have been a speech-scroll originally.

The zigzag lines at the bottom of the scene suggest an attempt to depict rocky terrain in a very stylized way, but this is in fact a broad band of chevrons once separating all the paintings at Charlwood. A very large leg and foot at the far right belong to an archer from a painting of a later Martyrdom of St Edmund, more of which was visible in Tristram’s day. A pair of feet projecting into the top of the painting at centre right similarly belongs to a painting of the Story of St Nicholas, which will be here soon. The Life of St Margaret farther east on the wall is now on the site.

Website for St Nicholas, Charlwood

¹JC Wall, Medieval Wall Paintings, London (n.d.), p.204
† in page heading = Diocese