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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Wensley, N Yorkshire (†Ripon)

The Three Living & The Three Dead

Three Living & Three Dead, Wensley

Now reduced to fragments, what remains here is nevertheless fairly clear, and it is certainly unflinchingly gruesome, with its thread-like worms¹ issuing from the legs of the two dead on the left (the third, at the extreme left hand edge, has almost completely gone). The most interesting aspect of this example though is the inscription around the dead figures.

I have rotated part of the picture (below right) to make these more readable, and the text fragment seems to read as follows:

From the top – “…WE ARE NOWE…THE” [next line] “…S[H]AL [YOU/YE?] BE…” [next line]…“[B?]EWAR W..[at least three more letters, hard to decipher]
Three Living & Three Dead, Wensley, detail, inscription

Better paleographers than me may be able to do more with this, but it accords well enough with the general burden of the three dead’s message to the living. A painting in the 13th century Arundel Psalter² has as part of the speech-text for the dead “Such shalt thou be”, and “For God’s love be warned by me”. Clive Rouse suggested that many paintings of the subject must have been based on this particular example.

The assumption must be that what seem to be figures in draperies to the right of the dead and their texts are the Three Living – if so, they are not on the face of it very typical of the usual treatment of the subject. Insofar as it is possible to tell from the fragments left, these appear to be seated figures, facing forwards, and there is a suggestion that the figure nearest to the dead has his (?) hands veiled in drapery in an ancient fashion signifying the reverential handling of sacred objects. This is very puzzling – Three Living and Three Dead priests? But the fragmented state of the painting (some faint details below the two parallel horizontal lines at the bottom are probably a different subject entirely) makes it impossible to be sure – there may have been much more of the subject further to the right.

The only other visible painting at Wensley, St Eloi and the demonic horse, is now on the site.

Website for Holy Trinity church, Wensley

† in page heading = Diocese