Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Headless Bishop: The Life of Saint Denis

Detail of Saint Denis from The Crucifixion of the Parliament of Paris, c.1452, Paris, Musée du Louvre.
Today being 9 October makes this the feast day of the patron saint of Paris, Saint Denis (variations include: Denys, and the Latin form Dionysius). But who was he, and what has he done to deserve this day of celebration? Well, Saint Denis is one of my personal favourite saints, and his story and makes rather interesting reading ...

It's likely that Denis was born in Italy, but little else is known of his early life. He was one of a handful of bishops (including Rusticus and Eleutherius) that was sent by Pope Fabian to Gaul on an evangelical mission. The area had suffered greatly as a result of the Christian persecutions by the Roman Emperor Decius; these bishops were sent with the hope of restoring people's faith and allegiance to Christianity, which had been beginning to flourish there.

Missal of Saint Denis, c.1050 (Cod. Lat. 8878),
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
From Life and Miracles of St Denis, c.1317 (MS 2090-92),
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

The group made their way to the Roman city Lutetia (modern day Paris) and settled on
an island in the Seine (Île de la Cité) where they began preaching to the locals. The image above-left depicts Denis and his companions preaching to the people of Paris, it is from a 14C manuscript dedicated to his life. The preaching was quite a success for the group, however the local pagan priests were concerned by the number of conversions to Christianity. Denis and his companions were captured and tortured as a result. There are several accounts written at a later date of the extravagant tortures they had to endure, such as being scourged, racked, and thrown to wild beasts. However, in spite of his pain Denis refused to denounce Christianity and so it was decided that he, along with his loyal companions Rusticus and Eleutherius, would be sentenced to death by beheading. The c.1050 image above-right shows Christ blessing the trio in prison before their martyrdom.

Mural of Saint Denis picking up his decapitated head, at Place du Pantheon, Paris.
The three faithful Christians were taken to the highest hill in Paris (now known as Montmartre) to be beheaded. According to legend, Denis was so devout that even death would not stop him. He simply picked up his stray head and gave it a rinse in a nearby stream, then proceeded to walk for 6 miles whilst still carrying his head and preaching the word of God. In the place where he eventually collapsed and died a small shrine was built in his honour, later to be replaced by the Basilica of Saint Denis.

As well as being the patron saint of Paris (alongside Saint Genevieve), Saint Denis can be invoked to cure headaches. Imagery of him often depicts him as headless and carrying his own head. Here are some examples:

A headless Saint Denis at the left portal of the Notre Dame de Paris.
Statue of a headless Saint Denis at the Musée du Moyen Âge, Paris.
Denis holding the top of his severed head, from a Picture Bible (f.28v) c.1190.
Manuscript (76 F 5), Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.
Boucicaut Master, Saint Denis (fol. 31v), in Book of Hours (Ms. 2), c.1410-15.
The beheading of Saint Denis, from the tympanum of the north portal of the Basilica of Saint Denis.