Images of Medieval Art and Architecture

Saint Denis

General Information


Saint's Day -October 9

Patron Saint of France

Text from Sacred and Legendary Art
by Anna Jameson
Third Editon: London, 1911

Headings added and references to Renaissance art deleted by Jane Vadnal.

Conflation of Dionysius and Denis

THE legend which confounds Dionysius the Areopagite with St. Denis of France (bishop of Paris in the third century) will not bear any critical remark or investigation ; but as it is that which presents itself everywhere in Art, I give it here as it was popularly received.

Life of Dionysius

Dionysius was an Athenian philosopher, who, for his great wisdom in heavenly things, was named Theosoplius, and, being a judge of the Areopagus, was also called the Areopagite. He traveled into Egypt to study astrology under the priests of that country. Being at Heliopolis with his companion, the philosopher Apollophanes, and studying together the courses of the stars, they beheld the heavens darkened, and there was darkness over the heaven and earth for three hours ; and Dionysius was much troubled in spirit, not knowing what this might signify. He knew not then, though he afterwards learned, that this was the darkness which fell upon the earth in the same hour that the Redeemer died for our sins,- the darkness which preceded the dawning of the true light. And on these things did Dionysius meditate continually. Some time after his return to Athens, St. Paul arrived there, and preached to the people: and he preached to them THE UNKNOWN GOD. Dionysius listened with wonder, and afterwards he sought Paul, and asked him concerning this unknown God. Then Pan, explained all the mysteries of the Christian religion, and Dionysius believed, and was baptized in the faith. The apostle ordained him priest, and lie became the first bishop of Athens.

Among, the writings attributed to this great saint are certain letters, in which he tells us that he traveled to Jerusalem to pay a visit to the holy Virgin, and that he was struck with admiration and wonder to behold the glory which shone around her, and dazzled by the glorious company of angels which continually attend upon her. Also the same Dionysius tells us that he was present at her death and burial, and he has recorded the names of the apostles who were also present on that occasion.

Mission to France

Afterwards he returned to Athens, and thence traveled into Italy and France, and having joined Paul at Rome, he attended him to his martyrdom. After that he was sent by Pope Clement, the successor of Peter, to preach the Gospel in the kingdom of France. And Clement gave him for his companions, to aid him in his labors, a priest, whose name was Rusticus, and a deacon, who was called Eleutherius.

St. Denis (for so the French afterwards called him) arrived at Paris, the capital of that country, an exceedingly great and rich city, full of inhabitants, and well provided with all the good things of this earth ; the skies were bright, and the lands fertile it seemed to Dionysius another Athens. So lie resolved to fix his residence there, and to teach these people, who were learned, and happy and rich in all things but those which concerned their salvation, the way of truth and righteousness. Therefore Dionysius preached to them the Gospel, and converted many. Moreover, he sent missionaries to all the provinces of France, and even into Germany.


Now you can easily believe that these things were particularly displeasing to Satan, that enemy of the human race. He stirred up many of the nobles and others against the good bishop, and certain of their emissaries accused him to the Emperor Trajan; but others say it was the Emperor Domitian, and that this wicked emperor dispatched the proconsul Fescennius from Rome to Paris with orders to seize St. Denis, and throw him into prison, together with his companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius. The prefect ordered them to be brought before him, and, finding that they persisted in denying and contemning his gods, he commanded that they should be dragged forth to death; and being come to the place of execution, Dionysius knelt down, and raising, his hands and his eyes to Heaven ,recommended himself to God, and Rusticus and Eleutherius responded with a loud amen. Then the venerable and holy prelate Dionysius aid to the executioner, ' Do thine office;' and he, being diligent, in a few minutes struck off all their heads, and left them there, as was usual, to be devoured by the wild beasts. But the Lord did not forget his servants, nor was it his will that their holy remains should be dishonored ; therefore he permitted a most stupendous miracle, namely, that the body of Dionysius rose up on its feet, and, taking up his head in his hands, walked the space of two miles, to a place called the Mount of Martyrs (since called Montmartre), the angels singing,hymns by the way. Many were converted by this great miracle, particularly Lactis, the wife of Lubritis, who, having declared herself a Christian, was also beheaded.

Early worship of St. Denis

The bodies of St. Denis, of St. Eleutherius, and St. Rusticus were buried afterwards on this spot, and the first person who raised a church to their honor was St. Genevive assisted by the people of Paris. In the reign of King Dagobert the holy relics were removed to the Abbey of St. Denis. The saint became the patron saint of the French monarchy, his name the war-cry of the French armies. The famous oriflamme - the standard of France-was the banner consecrated upon his tomb. About the year 754, Pope Stephen II., who had been educated in the monastery of St. Denis, transplanted his native saint to Rome, and, from this period the name of St. Denis has been known and venerated through all Europe. In the time of Louis le Debonnaire (A.D. 814), certain writings, said to be those of Dionysius the Areopagite, were brought to France, and then it became a point of honor among the French legendary writers to prove their St. Denis of Paris identical with the famous convert ,the disciple of St. Paul; in which they have so far succeeded, that in sacred Art it has become difficult to consider them as distinct persons.

Satin Denis in Art

The popular effigies of St. Denis, those which are usually met with in the French and German prints, in the Gothic sculpture and stained glass of the French churches, represent him in his episcopal robes, carrying his head in his hand; sometimes, while he wears his own mitered head, he carries also a head in his hand, which I have heard sneered at, as adding the practical blunder of the two beads to the original absurdity of the story : but the fact is, that in both instances the original signification is the same, the attribute of the severed head expresses merely martyrdom by decapitation, and that the martyr brings his head an offering to the Church of Christ. Such figures appear to have suggested the legends of several headless saints promulgated to gratify the popular taste for marvels and miracles.

Devotional figures of St. Denis are not common in the Italian schools, and in these I recollect no instance in which he is without his head....

Subjects from the life of St. Denis are very common as a series, in the sculpture and stained glass of the French cathedrals, and in the modern restorations of the Cathedral of St. Denis : one of the finest in the grand window in the Cathedral al Chartres. The separate pictures and prints from his legendary story are principally confined to the French school.

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Updated by Jane Vadnal, June, 1998