Montmartre and the Head of Saint Denis

Montmartre on a Sunday afternoon.   We have been to this beautiful part of Paris, France twice and both times the steps of the basilica located there were crowded with people just hanging out with no particular intent.  But the place is venerated by the local faithful and the inside of the basilica is beautiful.  Perhaps there is something mystical about this place and absent the ever-present pickpockets, it evokes a respectful atmosphere.

I found that the name Montmartre comes from Mons martyrum”, meaning “mountain of martyrs”,  from the martyrdom of Saint Denis, who was decapitated on the hill around 250 AD. Saint Denis was the Bishop of Paris and is the patron saint of France. He is also considered by the Catholic Church to be one of about 14 or so “Holy Helpers” where each of the helpers would answer prayers for specific maladies.  St Denis (of course) is the patron saint of headaches.  Starting in the third century, thanks to Saint Denis, a number of structures were erected on the mountain in his honor and today we have this Basilica.

It is pretty certain that Denis and two of his colleagues were beheaded by the Romans, but Christian Legend tells that his accusers first tried burning him at the stake, but Denis was not harmed.   The Romans next tried beheading him, but the decapitated Denis picked up his head and walked several miles while preaching a sermon on repentance, stopping along the way to clean the head in a fountain. With this, Denis became the most famous cephalophore in Christian Legend.

cephalophore (from the Greek for “head-carrier”) is a saint who is generally depicted carrying their own severed head. In Christian art, this was usually meant to signify that the subject in question had been martyred by beheading. Depicting the requisite halo in this circumstance offers a unique challenge for the artist: some put the halo where the head used to be, others have the saint carrying the halo along with the head, and some split the difference. 

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