Friday, 3 July 2015

Saints' Lives: Saint Denis

Jamb statue from the
West Facade of Notre
Dame de Paris
As I said in last Friday’s post on the Basilica-Cathedral Saint Denis, today’s post is on the saint the church is dedicated to.

His feast day is October 9th in the Western church and October 3rd in the Eastern church, and he is the patron saint of France. He is generally portrayed as holding the head that was chopped off.

Saint Denis (Denis being the French* form of the name Dionysius)’s legend was confused with that of two other figures, the first being the 1st C. Dionysius the Areopagite, the second being a 5th or 6th C. writer who assumed the name so his writing would be given more authority. This is the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite whose writings on light and God influenced Abbot Suger in his redesign of the Basilica of St Denis. Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, dates from the 3rd C, though the first written account of his life dates from c. 600.

The information below comes from The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, translated by William Granger Ryan (volume II). Princeton University Press, 1995. pp 236-241. Saints lives weren’t examined critically in the middle ages, so don’t expect the information below to sound particularly credible from a modern standpoint. But this is how medieval people understood his story. Jacobus compiled his ‘Readings on the Saints’ from various sources c.1260 and the book was a bestseller, with thousands of copies of the manuscript surviving.  


Dionysius, called the Areopagite because he was from that area of Athens, was an upper-class philosopher who was converted to Christianity by the Apostle Paul. Dionysius had noted a darkness that fell across the region that didn’t correspond with - or follow the rules of - an eclipse. When Paul explained that the darkness corresponded with Christ’s crucifixion and that Christ was ‘the Unknown God’ to whom the Athenians had created an altar for the event, he asked Paul to heal a blind man in Christ’s name. Paul told Dionysius the words to use and had Dionysius heal the man using them. Dionysius, his wife, and his household were all baptized. He was taught by Paul for three years and was then ordained Bishop of Athens. Though his preaching, he converted the city and much of the surrounding area. He visited Peter and Paul when they were in prison in Rome, and was present at the death of Mary, the mother of Christ.

Pope Clement, successor of Peter, sent him to preach in Gaul (modern day France), with Rusticus and Eleutherius as companions. When he arrived in Lutetia (Paris), he converted many people and built several churches. Pagan priests convinced the people to attack him, but he was protected by God, and they either grovelled at his feet in awe or ran away in fear. The devil got Emperor Domitian to issue the order than anyone found to be a Christian had to sacrifice to idols or be tortured. He sent a prefect, Fescenninus, to Lutetia, who then found Denis preaching about Christ. He had Denis and his 2 companions arrested, beaten, scourged, and imprisoned.
St Denis and his 2 companions being brought to prison,
left portal, Basilica-Cathedral Saint Denis
Several methods were used to torture or kill Denis without result including: an iron grill, hungry animals, and partial crucifixion. Denis performed a mass for his followers, many of whom were also now imprisoned with him. As he was giving the consecrated bread and wine to the people, Jesus appeared and, taking them from him, gave him communion as well.

St Denis receiving Communion from Christ while in prison,
right portal tympanum, Basilica-Cathedral Saint Denis
Brought before the prefect once more, the three men were tortured and beheaded. Denis’s body immediately stood up, picked up his head, and walked from his place of martyrdom (Montmartre - hill of martyrs) to the place where his body now rests (where the basilica-cathedral of St Denis now stands). The sounds of angels singing at this spot converted many, including Laertia, wife of the prefect Lubrius, who was then beheaded. Her son, serving in Rome, later returned to Lutetia and was baptized.
Life and martyrdom of St. Denis
South Transept portal tympanum, Basilica-Cathedral Saint Denis
Around A.D. 644 the Frankish King, Dagobert, held St. Denis in high regard, so much so that he hid in the church of St. Denis when he feared his father’s anger. A holy man had a vision that when Dagobert died and his soul was being brought for judgement, several saints accused him of stripping their churches of valuables. But the soul of St Denis protected him from their demands for punishment.

King Clovis had the body of St Denis uncovered and broke off and removed one of the arms. Soon after he lost his mind.

The passage in The Golden Legend ends with the following paragraph, “Note also that Hincmar, bishop of Rheims, says, in the letter he wrote to Charles, that the Dionysius who was sent to Gaul was Dionysius the Areopagite, as was said above. John Scotus makes the same assertion in a letter to Charles. This cannot be questioned, therefore, on the ground that the dates are contradictory, as some have tried to argue.” (p. 241).

In other words, it was recognized that they must be different men, even as they kept the idea that they were, somehow, the same figure.

According to Wikipedia:

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. 
Oriflamme copy at Basilica-Cathedral St. Denis
Stained glass window at Chartres showing
St. Denis handing the oriflamme to a knight.
Click the images to see them larger, and check out this webpage for a clearer image of the stained glass.

* This is one of those things that took me ages to grasp, that names can change drastically from one language to another. It was years before I made the connection between Santiago de Compostella (Spanish) and Saint James (English).

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