Saint Denis: The Headless Bishop
Imagine, if you would, a man walking through a crowd of people. Then imagine the people screaming and backing away in unison. This man seems to be holding something that is causing them to scream in terror. He is carrying his own severed head.
True or not, this is a predominant myth about a little-known saint from the 3rd century AD: Saint Denis. Catholic Encyclopedia notes about Saint Denis’ young life:
Born in Italy, nothing is definitely known of the time or place, or of his early life. His feast is kept on 9 October. […] while still very young he was distinguished for his virtuous life, knowledge of sacred things, and firm faith, is proved by the fact that Pope Fabian sent him with some other missionary bishops to Gaul on a difficult mission (Stiglmayr).
Very little fact is known about this saint except for his brave missionary trip, which would be his eventual demise. Saint Denis and two of his missionary friends went to Gaul, where the Church was dying slowly under the rule of a harsh emperor. Saint Denis (who was a bishop) and his close companions, Saint Rusticus (a priest) and Saint Eleutherius (a deacon), set out to bring the faith back to the people of Gaul.
The powerful teaching of the three soon-to-be-saints was so moving that many in Gaul converted on the spot, causing justifiable outrage in the fallen priests among them. Acting on the priests’ urges, the governor commanded the three friends to be captured. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains, “they were scourged, imprisoned, racked, thrown to wild beasts, burnt at the stake, and finally beheaded” (Stiglmayr). After all that torture, in which the companions still remained strong, their captors cut off their heads. And in that moment, came the event that Saint Denis was to be remembered most for. For as the bloody ax was dragged away from the corpses of him and his dear friends, Denis’ body rose to its feet, picked up its severed head, and proceeded to walk away (see fig 1). The screams of surrounding bystanders must have been heard echoing about the city of Gaul, and there is little doubt that Saint Denis’ final act converted many. When his body finally fell to the ground and was taken away with the others, the relived priests must have hoped it was the end of their troubles. But unfortunately for them, and fortunately for all the faithful, Saint Denis has churches and even a basilica named after him, and to this day is portrayed holding his famous severed head.
Stiglmayr, Joseph. “St. Denis.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 23 Jan. 2016 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04721a.htm>.
“ALL SAINTS: Saint Denis and Companions.” All Saints and Martyrs. Blogger, n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2016.