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On the Kalendar: Saint Denis

October from Les Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne

“October”, kalendar page from Les Petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Little Hours of Queen Anne of Bretagne), by the Maître des Triomphes de Pétrarque. From Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (France).

Denis is a cephalophore, that is, a saint who is depicted carrying his own head post mortem. You might think it odd that such a characteristic has its own word, but folklorist Émile Nourry has counted over 130 examples of cephalophory in French hagiographic literature alone. Cephalophory can present a challenge to painters, because it’s not clear where to put the halo: above the severed head itself, or above the saint’s neck where it would normally be, if the head were present. (Note that Saint John the Baptist, the best known beheaded saint, is not considered a cephalophore, since he did not hold his own head in his hands.)

Denis’s Legend says he was sent by Pope Fabian to Gaul with several other missionaries. (Fabian was pope from A.D. 236—250.) Denis was appointed the first Bishop of Paris, but he was arrested, imprisoned, and then executed by the Roman Governor. (Persecution of Christians was common under then-Emperor Decius.) Denis was executed along with two companions, a priest and a deacon, who later were assigned the names Rusticus and Eleutherius, respectively. According to tradition, they were executed on Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris, whose name possibly derives from this event (Mons Martyrum, “the Martyrs’ Mountain”), although the name may predate the saint’s death (it could also be Mons Mercurii et Mons Martis, “Hill of Mercury and Mars”).

The Legend continues that Denis then picked up his own head, and walked several miles, preaching a sermon all the while. The place where he actually died was marked by a small shrine, later the site of the Basilica of Saint-Denis, which became the traditional burial site for French royalty. Denis was the original patron saint of the French people (he was eclipsed later by Joan of Arc), and he is honoured as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints venerated starting in the 14th century for their protection against the Black Death and other illnesses. Denis was specifically invoked against diabolical possession and headaches.

Denis’s feast day is 9 October.

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