The cephalophore

While reading up on the French city of Saint-Denis I discovered that there is a special word for a saint who is beheaded but then picks up his or her head and walks away with it. The word is cephalophore, from two Greek words meaning “head-carrier”.

The world’s first — but by no means only — cephalophore was Denis, the first bishop of Paris, who was beheaded up on Montmartre (which might or might not mean “the Mountain of the Martyr”) in the year 250 A.D. on orders of the Roman Emperor Decius. Instead of just dying, Denis is said to have picked up his head and walked with it to the place where the Basilica of Saint-Denis now stands, a distance of two leagues, or as we would now say six kilometers, straight north from Montmartre. On his walk he preached, or his head preached, a sermon on the topic of redemption.

Medieval map of Saint-Denis and vicinity

This map is on display in a small museum adjoining the Basilica of Saint-Denis. It shows the town of Saint-Denis, with the Seine River swinging by on the left. Nearby are the villages of Aubervillier (without an s at the end), La Courneuve and Le Bourget (without the airport, of course).

But this map was obviously not used by Denis to find the way to his burial place, first because the map wasn’t even drawn until several centuries later, second because cephalophores always used both hands to carry their heads so they wouldn’t have had a hand free for a map, and third because cephalophores always found their way by divine guidance and had no need for cartography.

In the Basilica of Saint-Denis

Cephalophory turned out to be such a great idea that as many as 134 other saints later followed Denis’s example in France alone. Most of these were men, but there were also some female cephalophores such as Saint Valerie of Limoges, who is said to have picked up her severed head and carried it to her confessor, Saint Martial.

The name Denis or Dennis was derived from the Greek name Dionysus, and to this day the inhabitants of the city of Saint-Denis are known as Dionysiens.

In the Middle Ages Saint Denis was often confused with another saint called Dionysus the Areopagite, but of course neither of them should be confused with the totally un-saintly ancient Greek god Dionysus, the god of wine and intoxication, theater and illusion.

Statues at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris

When I visited the Basilica of Saint-Denis I neglected to take a picture of the cephalophore holding his severed head, so on my next visit to Paris I stopped by the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris and took this photo of Saint Denis calmly holding his head with both hands, while keeping his bishop’s staff pressed between his left arm and his body. He is flanked by two adult angels, with wings. The male angel on his left (our right) is holding the handle of something in his right hand, while the female angel on his right (our left) is holding up the palms of her hands towards Denis, as though to ward him off or perhaps to catch his head in case he should let it fall.

After writing this, I looked up the angels and found that they are meant to represent Saint John the Baptist, on his left, and Sainte Étienne on his right. The statues were made in the 19th century in the atelier of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879), who was responsible for the restoration of Notre-Dame and other medieval buildings.

The Martyrdom of Saint Denis in the Panthéon, Paris

My lead photo at the top of this post is a detail from the fresco “The Martyrdom of Saint Denis” in the Panthéon in Paris. In this painting, Saint Denis has just been beheaded and his head has started to roll down the stairs, so he is bending over to pick it up. There is a halo around the fallen head, and a sparkling light above his neck where the head used to be. The man in the blue loincloth is presumably the executioner, and the white-bearded man wearing a white bedsheet seems to be some sort of pagan priest or official who has ordered the execution. The two headless bodies on the left and right sides of the picture are Denis’s colleagues Rusticus and Eleutherius, who were beheaded with him. But they did not survive the execution, so they are just lying dead on the stairs. One of their heads does have a thin halo around it, however, by the executioners left foot in the lower right-hand corner of the picture.

If for some reason you would like to see this fresco in the Panthéon, you should know that it is just inside the building at the entrance, on the wall above the ticket booth and the security table.

My photos in this post are from 2015 and 2016. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: Queen for a year, about the funerary statues in the Basilica Saint-Denis.

3 thoughts on “The cephalophore”

  1. Yes, I remember this too – fascinating stuff! And your explanation of the reasons why St Denis didn’t use the map made me smile 🙂

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