Just one of the many stories about Paris
Saint Denis, the patron saint of France, has a very colorful and interesting history and story. There’s the cathedral that bears his name. We first visited the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis a number of years ago, that wonderful Gothic construction where many of France’s royalty were crowned and buried.
As most visitors to Paris probably know, on the front of the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, to the left of the main door, stands the statue of a man holding his own severed head. It is Saint Denis. Why is the saint usually portrayed decapitated and what is the link to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis?
The story goes that Saint Denis was decapitated, then walked 4 miles holding his head, which delivered a sermon, before finally collapsing and dying. Evidence is flimsy but there are enough details to the story to suggest it is based on some sort of facts.
A Denys or Dionysius arrived from Rome in Lutetia (which became Paris) in about 250, sent by Pope Fabian to convert the pagans of Gaul. He set himself up as bishop and started offering masses. Roman emperor Decius wanted to stamp out Christianity in the provinces and ordered the governor of Lutetia to force Denys to recant and sacrifice to the pagan deities. Denys of course refused and was beheaded at the foot of the highest point in the city, known forever after as Montmartre (Martyr Hill). Supposedly he then picked up his head, walked to the top of the hill and a further 4 miles to the village of Catolacus. A parishioner buried him at the spot where he died, and wheat and other plants sprouted immediately from the grave. It is here that Sainte Genevieve built a church around 475, and over the next centuries it grew into the Gothic Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis, Europe’s first.
It’s suggested that what may have happened is that the swordsman was inept and in fact only sliced off the top of Denys’s skull. Such a head wound might not be instantly fatal, so Denys may have been able to walk up the hill and further on.
Whatever the truth, the former bishop soon became venerated throughout the Christian world and his death was a popular subject for many artists.
Paris today still has a few connections to Saint Denis. For example, the archeological museum below the parvis (square) in front of Notre Dame shows Lutetia as it looked during the saint’s life. Where Denis and his followers were tortured and imprisoned before being killed is now the flower market behind the Conciergerie.
We discovered another sight for the first time on a recent visit to the city. On the other side of the River Seine not far from the Conciergerie, rue Saint-Denis begins in the red light district, something that the saint would probably have disliked! The street ends at the arch of the Porte de Sainte Denis. The arch was built in 1672 by architect Francois Blondel and sculptor Michel Anguier to celebrate the victories of Louis XIV, and marks the outer limits of the old city.
The spirit of Saint Denis lives on.