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10 09 saint denis with two haloesToday is the feast day of Saint Denis, the first Bishop of Paris, who lived and died in the 3rd century. As with most of the Saints I write about here, it’s mainly the story of his martyrdom that I’m interested in. Saint Denis is a cephalophore, which means that he is usually depicted carrying his own head. There are quite a lot of saints who carry their own heads. It has really been a bit of a problem for artists, because it’s not quite clear where the halo should go. Should it be around the head, or in the place where the head was? Sometimes they opt for both.

Saint Denis was one of seven bishops sent to Gaul by Pope Fabian to preach the gospels there. They settled on an island in the Seine called Île de la Cité, which we mentioned yesterday. There was a Christian community there, but it had been almost destroyed by persecution under the Roman Emperor Decius. But the bishop was so successful that pagan priests became worried about the amount of followers they were losing. Saint Denis and his two companions Rusticus and Eleutherius were arrested and thrown into prison. His captors did everything they could to make him renounce his faith. They roasted him on a griddle, they threw him to starving animals, they cast him into a furnace and they crucified him. When none of those things worked they beheaded him, along with his companions.

10 09 saint denisInstead of falling down dead, the saint bent to pick up his own head. Carrying it in his arms, he then walked 6 miles (10 km) with it. His head preached a sermon the whole way. The place where his head was cut off is now called Montmatre, which may be derived from ‘Mons Martyrum’ (Martyr’s Mountain). Equally it could have been ‘Mons Mercurii et Mons Martis’ (the Hill of Mercury and Mars). A shrine was built on the spot where he stopped preaching and died. It was later developed into Saint Denis Basilica which became the burial place of the kings of France. As for Rusticus and Eleutherius, their murderers wanted their bodies thrown into the river Seine. But as they were carrying the bodies to the river, they were stopped by a lady who invited them to dinner. While they were eating, she took the bodies and buried them in a field that she happened to own. When all the fuss died down, she dug them up again and buried them with Saint Denis.

A saint who carries his own head seems like a bit of a weird idea, but our Celtic ancestors really had a bit of a thing about heads. According to a Greek historian called Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the 1st century BC, they liked to preserve the heads of their enemies in cedar oil and enjoyed showing them to strangers. I am also reminded of the story of Bran the Blessed, a legendary king of Britain, and giant, who was mortally wounded at a battle in Ireland. There were only seven other survivors and Bran asked them to cut off his head and take it back to Britain. This, they did and took the head to Harlech in Wales. The head continued to speak to them, in fact it entertained them whilst they feasted for seven years. Then they took it to an island and remained there with the head for another eighty years, although it seemed to them as though no time had passed. Eventually, someone opened the doors, they all remembered what had happened and the head had fallen silent. They took the head of Bran the Blessed to White Hill, which is thought to be the sight of the Tower of London, and buried it, it’s face toward France, to protect the land from invasion.


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