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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Wensley, N Yorkshire (†Ripon) C.15

Incident in the Life of St Eloi?

St Eloi shoeing a possessed horse, Wensley

This painting is identified in some sources as Jacob and Esau, but that seems to me unlikely, and I think it is probably St Eloi or Eligius (the ‘Seinte Loy’ by whom Chaucer’s Prioress swore¹). Eloi was not only bishop of Noyon in France in the first half of the 7th century, but a goldsmith and metal worker of great renown. The best known legend attached to him concerns his shoeing of a horse possessed by the Devil. The creature was quite uncontrollable, and Eloi solved the problem of shoeing it by removing its leg, and then restoring it with the new shoe in place.

At the top of the picture either Eloi himself or a huntsman (perhaps the latter is more likely) with a bow over his shoulder and arrows at his belt leads in a suitably devilish-looking horse, wide-eyed and grinning malevolently. Below, a figure wearing what seem to be clerical vestments and perhaps with a tonsure, wields a hammer. This is, I think, Eloi, ready to deal with the demonic horse. There have been other details in the background, especially at the lower right, but it is impossible to say what they are now.

This is one of very few paintings in the English parish church to feature this particular incident, so far as I know, but St Eloi is also at Broughton in Buckinghamshire, in the company of St Helena and with blacksmithing tools in a panel below him. The incident of the horse is also painted at Shorthampton in Oxfordshire, (where there are many interesting paintings) but it is very difficult to see. The version at Slapton is also now on the site, as is the Three Living & The Three Dead at Wensley itself.

¹ Canterbury Tales; General Prologue, l.120, Chaucer, Complete Works, ed. Robinson, Oxford, 2nd. edn. 1974