October 9

Death of a cephalophoric saint

We expect saints to perform miracles. These days, proof of a miraculous cure or two is one of the ways the Catholic Church decides that an individual has exhibited saintly prowess. We do not routinely expect, however, that saints go about lugging their severed heads, but hagiographies abound in cephalophores (head-carriers) and today we celebrate the first of them: St Denis.

St Denis seems to have been sent from Italy to evangelize Roman-occupied Gaul in the third century. He converted so many in the region of what is now Paris that the authorities were alerted to his presence and he, with two companions, was beheaded on the city’s highest point, Montmartre. This execution does not seem to have deterred Denis from picking up his severed sense organ cluster and walking six miles to his burial site, with the detached head preaching a sermon of repentance all the way.

Other cephalophoric saints include Nicasius of Rheims who was reading a psalm when he was decapitated — his head finished reciting the verse he was on — and St Gemolo who, after his execution, picked up his head mounted a horse and rode off to meet his uncle. St Paul’s head was separated from his body by a sword but, nevertheless, was reputed to have cried out “Jesus Christus” fifty times.

Denis is not to be confused (though he was for centuries) with Dionysius the Areopagite who was converted by Paul in Athens. And of the latter’s imposter, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, we shall remain silent.

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