Saint of the Day – 9 October – Saint Denis of Paris (Died c 258) and Companions, the First Bishop of Paris, Martyr, Missionary, Confessor. St Denis was Bishop of Paris (then Lutetia) in the third century and, together with his companions the Priest Rusticus and Deacon Eleutherius, was Martyred for his faith by decapitation. He is also known as Denis of France, Dennis, Denys, Dionysius. Patronages – against frenzy, against headaches, against hydrophobia or rabies, against strife, France, Paris, possessed people. The feast of Saint Denis was added to the Roman Calendar in the year 1568 by Pope Pius V, although it had been celebrated since at least the year 800. St Denis was for a time, confused with the writer St Dionysuis the Areopagite, now called Pseudo-Dionysius.
Denis is the most famous cephalophore in Christianiaty (a cephalophore [from the Greek for “head-carrier”] is a saint who is generally depicted carrying their own severed head. The decapitated Bishop picked up his head and walked several miles while preaching a sermon on repentance.
St Gregory of Tours states that Denis was Bishop of the Paris 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 with six other Missionary Bishops under the direction of Pope Fabian. There Denis was appointed first Bishop of Paris. The persecutions under Emperor Decius had all but dissolved the small Christian community at Lutetia (Paris). 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 and his companions were so effective in converting people that the pagan priests became alarmed over their loss of followers. At their instigation, the Roman Governor arrested the Missionaries. After a long imprisonment, Denis and two of his clergy were 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 the site its current name, derived from the Latin Mons Martyrum “The Martyrs’ Mountain.”
After he was decapitated, Denis picked his head up and walked several miles from the summit of the hill, preaching a sermon on repentance the entire way, making him the most renowned 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.
The site where he stopped preaching and actually died was marked by a small shrine that developed into the Saint Denis Cathedral Basilica, which became the burial place for the Kings of France.
Montmartre’s heritage pays tribute in it’s own way to Saint Denis and you will find many famous landmarks commemorating the saint around the hill. You can marvel at the statue of Saint Denis, holding his head in the quiet square Suzanne Buisson. Or even walk in his steps on rue Mont-Saint Denis), which is said to follow the same route the Saint took after being decapitated.
Since at least the ninth century, the legends of Dionysius the Areopagite and Denis of Paris have often been confused. Around 814, Louis the Pious brought certain writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite to France and since then it became common among the French legendary writers to argue that Denis of Paris was the same Dionysius who was a famous convert and disciple of Saint Paul.