Saint Denis of Paris

Saint Denis, holding his head. statue at the left portal of Notre Dame.
Bishop and Martyr
Born 3rd century AD
Died c. 250, 258,[1] or 270
Montmartre, Paris, France
Honored in Roman Catholic Church
Major shrine Saint Denis Basilica
Feast October 9
Attributes carrying his severed head in his hands; a bishop's mitre; city; furnace[2]
Patronage France; Paris; against frenzy, strife, headaches, hydrophobia, possessed people, rabies

Saint Denis (also called Dionysius, Dennis, or Denys) is a Christian martyr and saint. In the third century, he was Bishop of Paris. He was martyred in connection with the Decian persecution of Christians, shortly after A.D. 250. After his head was chopped off, Denis is said to have picked it up and walked ten kilometres (six miles), preaching a sermon the entire way, making him one of many cephalophores in hagiology. He is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church as patron of Paris, France and as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. The medieval and modern French name "Denis" derives from the ancient name Dionysius.



Gregory of Tours[3] states that Denis was bishop of the Parisii and was martyred by being beheaded by a sword. The earliest document giving an account of his life and martyrdom, the "Passio SS. Dionysii Rustici et Eleutherii" dates from c. 600, is mistakenly attributed to the poet Venantius Fortunatus, and is legendary. Nevertheless, it appears from the Passio that Denis was sent from Italy to convert Gaul in the third century, forging a link with the "apostles to the Gauls" reputed to have been sent out under the direction of Pope Fabian. This was after the persecutions under Emperor Decius had all but dissolved the small Christian community at Lutetia.[4] Denis, with his inseparable companions Rusticus and Eleutherius, who were martyred with him, settled on the Île de la Cité in the River Seine. Roman Paris lay on the higher ground of the Left Bank, away from the river.


Denis, having alarmed the pagan priests by his many conversions, was executed by beheading on the highest hill in Paris (now Montmartre), which was likely to have been a druidic holy place. The martyrdom of Denis and his companions is popularly believed to have given it its current name, derived from the Latin mons martyrium "The Martyrs' Mountain",[1] although in fact the name is more likely to derive from mons mercurei et mons martis, Hill of Mercury and Mars.[5] After his head was chopped off, Denis is said to have picked it up and walked ten kilometres (six miles) to the summit of Mont Mars (now Montmartre), preaching a sermon the entire way, making him one of many cephalophores in hagiology. Of the many accounts of this martyrdom, this is noted in detail in the Golden Legend and in Butler's Lives Of The Saints.[6] The site where he stopped preaching and actually died was marked by a small shrine that developed into the Saint Denis Basilica, which became the burial place for the kings of France. Another account has his corpse being thrown into the Seine, but recovered and buried later that night by his converts.[2]


Late Gothic statue of Saint Denis, limestone, formerly polychromed (Musée de Cluny)

Veneration of Saint Denis began soon after his death. The bodies of Saints Denis, Eleutherius, and Rusticus were buried on the spot of their martyrdom, where the construction of the saint's eponymous basilica was begun by Saint Geneviève, assisted by the people of Paris.[7] Her Vita Sanctae Genovefae attests the presence of a shrine near the present basilica by the close of the fifth century, though the names of Rusticus and Eleutherius are non-historical. The successor church was erected by Fulrad, who became abbot in 749/50 and was closely linked with the accession of the Carolingians to the Merovingian throne.

In time, the "Saint Denis", often combined as "Montjoie! Saint Denis!" became the war-cry of the French armies. The oriflamme, which became the standard of France, was the banner consecrated upon his tomb. His veneration spread beyond France when, in 754, Pope Stephen II, who was French, brought veneration of Saint Denis to Rome. Soon his cultus was prevalent throughout Europe.[7] Abbot Suger removed the relics of Denis, and those associated with Rustique and Eleuthére, from the crypt to reside under the high altar of the Saint-Denis he rebuilt, 1140-44.[8]

The feast of Saint Denis was added to the Roman Calendar in the year 1568 by Pope Pius V, though it had been celebrated since at least the year 800. St Denis' feast day is celebrated on October 9.[2]

In traditional Catholic practice, Saint Denis is honored as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Specifically, Denis is invoked against diabolical possession and headaches[9] and with Sainte Geneviève is one of the patron saints of Paris.


Last Communion and Martyrdom of Saint Denis, by Henri Bellechose, 1416, which shows the martyrdom of both Denis and his companions

9 October is celebrated as the feast of Saint Denis and also of his companions, a priest named Rusticus and a deacon, Eleutherius, who were martyred alongside him and buried with him.

Confusion with Dionysus the Areopagite

Since at least the ninth century, the legends of Dionysus the Areopagite and Denis of Paris have been often confused. Circa 814, Louis the Pious brought certain writings attributed to Dionysus the Areopagite to France, and since then it became common among the French legendary writers to prove that Denis of Paris was the same Dionysus who was a famous convert and disciple of Saint Paul.[7] The confusion of the personalities of Saint Denis, Dionysus the Areopagite, and pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the author of the writings ascribed to Dionysius brought to France by Louis, was initiated through an Areopagitica written in 836 by Hilduin, Abbot of Saint-Denis, at the request of Louis the Pious. "Hilduin was anxious to promote the dignity of his church, and it is to him that the quite unfounded identification of the patron saint with Dionysius the Areopagite and his consequent connexion with the apostolic age are due."[10] Hilduin's attribution had been supported for centuries by the monastic community at Abbey of Saint-Denis and one of origins of their pride. In Historia calamitatum, Pierre Abelard gives a short account of their strong belief and harsh opposition to any theoretical challenge of their claim: Abelard jokingly pointed out a possibility that the founder of the Abbey could have been another Dionysius, who is mentioned as Dionysius of Corinth by Eusebius. His claim irritated community so that he had to leave this community with bitterness finally. Scholars might still argue for an Eastern origin of the Basilica of Saint-Denis in the sixteenth century: one was Godefroi Tillman's long preface to a paraphrase of the Letters of the Areopagite, printed in Paris in 1538 by Charlotte Guillard.[11] Historiographers of the present day[12] do not dispute this point.[4]

Depiction in art

Denis' headless walk has led to his being depicted in art decapitated and dressed as a Bishop, holding his own mitred head in his hands.[7] Handling the halo in this circumstance poses a unique challenge for the artist. Some put the halo where the head used to be; others have Saint Denis carrying the halo along with the head. Even more problematic than the halo was the issue of how much of his head Denis should be shown carrying. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, the Abbey of St Denis and the canons of Notre-Dame Cathedral were in dispute over ownership of the saint's head. The Abbey claimed that they had the entire body, whilst the Cathedral claimed to possess the top of his head which, they claimed, had been severed by the executioner's first blow.[13] Thus while most depictions of St Denis show him holding his entire head, in others, the patrons have shown their support for the Cathedral's claim by depicting him carrying just the crown of his skull, as, for example in the mid 13th century window showing the story at Le Mans Cathedral (Bay 111).[14]


  1. ^ a b "St. Denis and Companions". "Saint of the Day". Retrieved 2007-01-16. 
  2. ^ a b c Jones, Terry. "Denis". Patron Saints Index. Retrieved 2007-01-16. 
  3. ^ "Beatus Dionysius Parisiorum episcopus diversis pro Christi nomine adfectus poenis praesentem vitam gladio immente finivit." "History of the Franks I," 30.
  4. ^ a b "St. Denis". The Catholic Encyclopedia. 4. Robert Appleton Company. 1908. Retrieved 2007-01-16. 
  5. ^ "Une Légende liée à Montmartre"
  6. ^ This is the iconographic detail by which he may be identified, whether in the thirteenth-century sculpture at the Musée de Cluny (illustration, in Veneration below) or in the nineteenth-century figure in the portal of Nôtre Dame de Paris, part of Viollet-le-Duc's restorations (illustration, in infobox).
  7. ^ a b c d Vadnal, Jane (June 1998). "Images of Medieval Art and Architecture: Saint Denis". Excerpt from "Sacred and Legendary Art" by Anna Jameson, 1911. Retrieved 2007-01-16. 
  8. ^ Suger, "De rebus in administratione sua gestis," xxxi, and "De Consecratione," v.
  9. ^ Miller, Jennifer. "Fourteen Holy Helpers". Retrieved 2007-01-16. 
  10. ^ A. Hamilton Thompson, reviewing Sumner McKnight Crosby, The Abbey of Saint-Denis, 475-1122. Vol. I, in The English Historical Review 58 No. 231 (July 1943:357-359) p 358.
  11. ^ "Georgii Pachymerae... Paraphrasis in decem Epistolas B. Dionysii Arepagitae"; see Beatrice Beech, "Charlotte Guillard: A Sixteenth-Century Business Woman," Renaissance Quarterly No. 36, 3 (Autumn 1983:345-367) p. 349.
  12. ^ Note that the source for this statement is not contemporary, but is derived from the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia.
  13. ^ See Gabriel Spiegel, The Cult of St Denis and Capetian Kingship, in Saints and their Cults, Stephen Wilson (ed), 1985. p.144ff
  14. ^ Whatling, Stuart. "Photographs of Le Mans Cathedral - Outer Clerestory Windows - Bay 111, Panel B5". Corpus Narratologica. Retrieved 2009-06-15. 

Further Reading

  • Drinkwater, J.F. (1987). The Gallic Empire : separatism and continuity in the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire, A.D. 260-274. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden. ISBN 3515048065. 
  • Gregory of Tours (1988). Glory of the martyrs. Raymond Van Dam, trans. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN 0853232369. 
  • Lacaze, Charlotte (1979). The "Vie de Saint Denis" Manuscript. New York: Garland. 
  • Van Dam, Raymond (1985). Leadership and community in late antique Gaul. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520051629. 

External links

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