A detail of the carvings adorning the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. The figure third from the left, the one standing between two angels holding his own head (!) is Saint Denis, informally known as the patron saint of Paris. This is one of the most famous depictions of him, and demonstrates his popularity even at the time the cathedral was being built, 850 years ago. His is a weird story, but worth knowing, because his image is everywhere: even within the canon of admittedly bizarre accounts regarding lives of saints, this one's out there. Saint Denis was allegedly the Bishop of Paris in the third century, martyred during the persecution of Christians around 250 AD. He's also called Dionysius, the ancient name from which Denis is derived. His story is most notable because allegedly, after being "decapitated," he picked up his own head and walked ten kilometers (six miles), preaching a sermon the entire way, before he finally died. There are so many of these accounts (headless walking dead) that the technical term for such a person is "cephalophore." St. Denis is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. The account is found in Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks, which states that Denis was the bishop of the Parisii, martyred by beheading with a sword. The earliest account of his martyrdom is found in the Passio SS Dionysii Rustici et Eleutherii, dating to the 600s. Denis reportedly relocated from Italy to Gaul in the third century, having been sent by Pope Fabian after persecutions under the emperor Decius. Two of Denis's most loyal companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius, also named in the account, were martyred along with him when pagan priests became irked by the number of conversions to Christianity. The men were thus executed on Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris, which was probably a druidic holy site before it was a Christian one. This event reportedly gave the site its current name, however, which is derived from the Latin mons martyrium, or Mountain of the Martyrs. Another account, in Butler's Lives of the Saints, states that the site where he actually died was commemorated with a shrine which over time developed into the St. Denis Basilica, which eventually became the burial place for the kings of France. Some accounts state that his body was thrown into the Seine but was later recovered and buried by his converts. The bodies were interred on the spot of their martyrdom where a basilica was later built by St. Genevieve and the people of Paris. The French pope Stephen II brought the veneration of St. Denis to Rome. His relics along with those of his two companions were removed from the crypt of his basilica to the base of the high altar during a later construction, from 1140-1144. The feast day of St. Denis was added in 1568; it's celebrated on October 9th. He is invoked especially against diabolical possession and, not surprisingly, headaches (!!). Sickeningly, there may be a grain of truth in these accounts, at least regarding the walking "headless": there are instances of botched executions where sizable portions of victims' heads have been lopped off without actually resulting in their immediate demise, leaving them to linger until they eventually bled to death. That may have been the case here if there's any truth to the story, as the account of Denis preaching a sermon as he walked suggests that the head wasn't actually severed from the neck, as is shown here. Told you this was a weird one.
About Notre Dame: This remarkable basilica was enjoying its 850th anniversary while we were there, so there was much celebration. Our apartment was located just down the street, so we could hear the bells frequently. Victor Hugo wrote that "Each face, each stone of this venerable monument is not only a page of the history of the country, but also of the history of knowledge and art....Time is the architect, the people are the builder." This building continues to inspire! Construction began in 1163, and it was finally completed in 1345. This incredible cathedral, a must-see landmark of a visit to Paris and probably its most well-known and often-visited site next to the Eiffel Tower was begun more than 800 years ago; the first cornerstone was laid in 1163. Actually, it replaced a number of previous structures located on the same site. According to some sources, ancient Celts held sacred rituals and ceremonies on the island in the Seine, and the Romans consequently built their own religious edifice, a temple to Jupiter, on the same site. A Christian basilica dedicated to St. Etienne was constructed in the 6th century, which was in turn replaced by a Romanesque church that occupied the site until the construction of the Cathedral began. There were a number of phases of construction, which was completed in 1250. It was revolutionary for its time, employing new techniques and styles that are its most celebrated features even today, including the "flying buttresses" mentioned above. The world-famous "rose window" was begun in 1225 and completed in 1250: yes, that amazing stained glass is more than 750 years old. Its panels were removed and placed in storage for safe keeping during WWII for fear that bombing would destroy them. Various restoration projects have occurred over the years, as the cathedral has certainly seen its share of history. It has suffered damage in various wars and conflicts, particularly the French Revolution, but it has certainly withstood the test of time. It is thus one of the most celebrated (and impressive) monuments in Europe.