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Saint Denis Martyr : Beheaded, He Walks Carrying His Own Head

Saint Denis Martyr

In the middle of the 3rd century, the surroundings of Paris were the scene of an unusual spectacle. A Christian preacher, tortured and beheaded by the Romans, comes back to life and walks carrying his own head. This is the story of Saint Denis martyr.

A Christian in Roman and Pagan Gaul

The first texts mentioning Saint Denis date from the 6th century. They tell us that Denis belongs to one of the last generations of Christians to have been underground and persecuted under the Roman Empire. He is one of the seven "bishops" sent from Rome around 250 to evangelize Gaul and establish ecclesiastical structures there.

Saint Denis chose the region of Ancient Paris whose capital was then still called Lutetia, one of the places where paganism was most deeply rooted. He addresses an assembly of inhabitants of a suburb of Lutetia in an attempt to enlighten their souls. And he succeeds! At the end of his preaching, the crowd is on their knees and shows themselves ready to deny their pagan beliefs.

But the Roman administrators, worried about this success, had him arrested. For the Empire still sees in Christianity a leaven of revolt against authority. By refusing to practice the sacrifices owed to the gods of the city, the Christians put themselves in the ban of the civic community.

The martyrdom of Denis, Rusticus and Eleutherius

According to legend, along with two of his companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius, Saint Denis was imprisoned and tortured for a long time. Then the Romans ordered the three men to sacrifice to the pagan gods in the Temple of Mercury, in front of the crowd they had previously conquered at the word of God. Having refused, the three missionaries are condemned to death and executed. Their bodies are stolen and buried at the foot of the walls of Lutetia by Christians.

From there, only much later writings give us information: these are the Lives of Saint Denis from the Carolingian period (9th century). According to these texts, Denis, Rusticus and Eleutherius have their heads cut off with an ax. At the very moment of severing, three crowns descend from the sky and rest on the heads of the victims, a sign of divine gratitude for their sacrifice. According to other versions, three doves appear, symbolizing their souls carried away by the Holy Spirit.

Where did Denis go with his head?

The Carolingian hagiography brings a great innovation: Denis's decapitated body gets up, picks up its head and carries it; he thus walks, guided and supported by angels, to a place a few kilometers away, called Catulliacus. This is where he wishes to be buried, and it is there that the royal abbey and the city near Paris will later rise, bearing his name: Saint-Denis.

The place of martyrdom, long wrongly identified with Montmartre, is in fact a hill called Montjoie, which served as a pagan worship center since time immemorial. Then, around 460, Saint Geneviève built a basilica at the presumed place of Denis's burial: the site being created, the cult of the martyr's relics could take off.

Saint Denis reclaimed by royalty

The Merovingians first used the image of Denis as an instrument of propaganda to promote Christianization and root out the idolatry and Druidism that still permeated the Gallic countryside.

Then all that remains is to tie the devotion to Denis to the political imagination of the monarchy. During the reign of Chlothar II, around 627, the relics were transferred to another chapel, located further north of Paris, specifically in Catulliacus. The clergy worked to pass it off as a royal foundation, attributed to Dagobert, the most prestigious of the Merovingian kings after Clovis I, and all the kings of France from Chlothar II were buried there.

Thus, Saint Denis becomes the apostle protector of Frankish Gaul and the symbol of its unity, at the same time as Lutetia, now Paris, becomes its political center. Carolingians and Capetians accentuate this identification by making Denis the patron of their respective dynasties.

The episode of cephalophoria (the transport of the head), a late addition intended to justify the transfer of the relics from the original tomb to a place allegedly wanted and designated by the saint himself, therefore appears as an ingenious find capable by the weight of mystery and wonder that it brings to best serve the political interests of the royal propaganda of the Frankish dynasty ...

Some famous martyrs

Many Saints had to endure the worst torments before rejoining the God they refused to deny.

Among the apostles

Besides the martyrdom of Peter, crucified upside down at his request because he did not feel worthy to die like Christ, the execution of Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria under Nero is particularly atrocious. They put a rope around his neck, dragging him for hours on end through the streets of Alexandria until his body was torn apart and bleeding.

Saint Agnes of Rome

Around the same time, this young girl wanted to preserve her virginity for Christ and refuses herself to the Romans of high condition who asked for her hand. She is then stripped of her clothes and delivered to clients of a brothel. But these, when they are about to abuse her, are touched by grace and begin to preach the faith. The priests of the pagan temples then rage against the virgin and, as the angels prevent her from being burned or stoned, they finally have her slaughtered.

Saint Christina of Bolsena

She had an even less enviable end, in 287, under Diocletian. Having broken her father's idols and refused to sacrifice to the gods, she is condemned to various tortures, which the Holy Spirit first has fail. Finally, her judge has her breasts and tongue cut off, and, as she picks it up and throws it in his face, he pierces her heart with three arrows.