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Denis, Saint

dionysius century head martyrdom

The patron *saint of France, Denis (Denys, Dionysius, d. c.250) was sent as a missionary to Gaul from his native Italy, successfully established a Christian center, and became bishop of Paris. According to Gregory of Tours, writing in the sixth century, Denis was eventually martyred (decapitated) by the Roman authorities along with his companions: the priest Rusticus and deacon Eleutherius. This account was greatly elaborated and complicated by a series of later authors, notably the ninth-century Abbot Hilduin of Saint Denis, who composed a treatise which identified Denis with the fifth-century mystical writer, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, further confused with the Dionysius of Athens converted by Saint *Paul in Acts 17:34. In addition, the story of his *martyrdom was later expanded with descriptions of how the decapitated saint picked up his head and walked from the site of his martyrdom (Montmartre—the “martyr’s hill”) to a location two miles away (which became his burial place and eventual site of the abbey of Saint-Denis). The Parisian abbey of Saint-Denis, which became the burial place of many members of the French royalty, was especially prominent through the Middle Ages, and the cult of Saint Denis was avidly promoted. Hence, Saint Denis appears frequently in French art of the Romanesque and Gothic periods. He is often shown as a cephalophor, dressed in bishop’s robes, carrying his head (which may be bare or wearing a bishop’s mitre). The illustration of his decapitation (before which he was visited in prison and received final communion from *Christ) is also a popular subject; Denis may be shown reaching out for his head as it falls or picking it up from the ground. The life of Saint Denis received detailed pictorial narrative treatment in manuscript illustrations of the mid-thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and episodes from his life are also found in Gothic stained glass, sculpture, and fresco painting in France and elsewhere.
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