Notre Dame is, of course, one of the most famous landmarks in Paris, and arguably the entire world. But as I stood looking at it today I found myself wondering something I suspect many people have; who’s that guy holding his severed head?
His name is Denis, and he was the first Bishop of Paris. The thing is, despite losing his head, it seems Denis came to notoriety, and indeed sainthood because in troubling times Denis was a man who kept his head, literally.
In about 250 AD, for the crime of converting too many pagans to Catholicism, Denis along with his two clergy companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius, was arrested. The three of them were subjected to gruesome tortures including being scourged, racked, and thrown to hungry wild animals. However, despite this Denis refused to denounce his faith and for this, he, and his two companions, were taken to the highest hill in Paris (now Montmartre) where they were beheaded.
Now you have to understand back in those days Paris was a brutal place and beheadings were commonplace in the cities long history. However, this particular beheading stands out in history as being unusual.
As legend has it, Denis was defiantly preaching a sermon at the time a swordsman cut off his head in what must have been a terrible scene. Usually, a beheading would be the end of it, but not for Denis. Apparently, he simply picked up his head and rinsed it in a nearby stream, then aided by two angels walked some ten kilometers (six miles) down the hill, preaching his sermon the entire way until he finished and then died.
The area where he died is now known as Saint Denis and there is also a Basilica in his name there.
It’s a wild story and one that made him the Patron Saint of Paris, the subject of a graphic mural at Place du Pantheon and earned him recognition upon the front left portal of the Notre Dame.
See Saint Denis at Notre Dame using Google street view