Sunday, December 31, 2017

Paris, Dec. 18, 2017: who was St. Denis?

I've visited many beautiful and interesting Priories, Friaries, Abbeys, small village churches, soaring cathedrals, and just a few basilicas in Ireland, England, France, Spain and Italy. In my History of Western Art class we eventually came to the architectural bit on the building of cathedrals, and I dutifully memorized all the terminology for the exam. But, rarely did you get a glimpse of the paintings and sculpture involving the Saints apart from the biggies like St. John and St. Peter. I find the legends of the lesser know saints, pretty fascinating.

For instance, St. James, better known on the Camino as Santiago, was martyred in Jerusalem, and legend has it that his followers placed his body on a stone boat, placed in the river and it sailed all the way to Spain where in the late 900's a farm found his bones while digging in one of his fields. The farmer called the Bishop, and when the bishop saw the remains promptly confirmed the identity of the remains, and the the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella was begun. The magic of these myths engages me, leaves me smiling, while shaking my head, as well.

And so it came to pass that a few weeks ago, I came face to face with the myth of St. Denis, patron Saint to the French Kings has a remarkable myth, too. He is early and described in "The Life of St. Genevieve", written around 520, as a bishop ordained in Rome by Pope St. Clement I (90-100 A.D.), who gave Denis the mission of evangelising the Celtic Gauls. He is said to have been martyred at Montmartre and to have carried his head in his hands as far as the cemetery of Catulliacus (now Saint-Denis), a distance of four leagues, or 13.809 miles.

St. Genevieve is thought to have had a basilica erected over his tomb. Pilgrims visiting his tomb found a railing around the slab, and would squeeze under the railing and rub themselves on the slab to soak up the Saintly dust that may have collected there.

The photo of this sculpture of St. Denis was taken in one of the oldest churches in Paris, built ontop a Roman temple in Montmartre.

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