Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 7, 2002
St. Denis walked with angels
Philosopher bishop converted Parisians, died by beheading
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
In folklore, a Christian cleric, Denis, was beheaded for his faith on Montmartre in Paris in the early centuries of the Church. He is said to have then picked up his head and walked many kilometres north of the city to be buried and later honoured by a great church on the site.
More prosaically, Bishop Dionysius or Denis was sent from Italy with five other bishop/missionaries to Gaul. He became Paris' first bishop, converted many of the city's residents, and was famed as a philosopher.
During the persecutions of Roman Emperor Decius in 250, Denis, his priest Rusticus, and deacon Eleutherius, were beheaded and their bodies thrown into the Seine River at Paris. Recovered by their followers, the remains were buried at the old Roman townsite of Catalliacus.
Later, at the revered spot, Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, had a large church erected to honour the martyr.
St. Denis, in traditional Church art, is portrayed holding his head, sometimes with bishop's mitre, on his arm. Some interpretations, as that at Notre Dame de Paris, have angels accompanying him on his journey.
Widely admired as one of the patrons of France, his basŚlica at the town of St. Denis has been a popular pilgrimage destination. His feast day, and that of his companions, is celebrated on Oct. 9.
However the saint arrived at his name-site, modern travellers speed from central Paris to the stop on Metro line 13 ("St. Denis") in a matter of minutes. The unusual station, with its Basilique de Saint-Denis in large, ornate script and replicas of stained glass windows, is unmistakable. It's a three-block walk to the church.
En route, many visitors stop at the Tourist Information Office for books and guides relating to the Church and to French royalty, and advice from helpful, knowledgeable staff.
The heavy fa‡ade of the basilica belies the architectural innovations that, rooted here, dramatically changed the landscapes of France and England.
Suger, abbot of the Benedictine Abbey here, is credited with introducing the delicate Gothic style to Western churches. Lighter walls, flying buttresses, larger windows, intersecting rib-vaults and pointed arches replaced the heavy, round-arched Romanesque forms common at the time.
During construction of the basŚlica (1136), Suger was visited by builders working at Chartres and Notre Dame in Paris, who, inspired by his concepts, were anxious to incorporate Gothic features into their churches.
The architect included himself, in a monk's cowl, prostrate at the Virgin Mary's feet in an Annunciation panel of one of St. Denis' many ancient stained glass windows.
St. Denis Church is probably best known for its necropolis, a mind-boggling array of memorial sculptures that once identified the final resting places of French royalty. Since 630, when Frankish King Dagobert enlarged the building and requested interment next to the saint, most kings and queens of France have been buried here.
And, although St. Denis is an active parish serving the centre of an expanding industrial town with regular services, a nominal fee is charged to access some areas of tombs.
St. Denis, in traditional Church art, is portrayed holding his head, sometimes with bishop's mitre, on his arm.
The saint has left an enduring legacy in his name throughout the western world. It's perpetuated in both given and family names in France and as Dennis in English-speaking regions. It's applied to towns (at least three in Quebec alone), churches and schools and his image is commonly found in European churches.
Back in Paris, visitors enjoying the cafes and artists' kiosks of Montmartre in the shadow of spectacular Eglise Sacre Couer might reflect on the district's name and remember that 1,700 years ago, saints were created here on this holy martyr's mountain.
And, whenever wonderment is expressed at the rose windows or ornate portals of the great gothic cathedrals of Europe, perhaps they'll think of little innovator monk Suger, permanently fixed in one of his own windows at St. Denis.