Feast Day of Saint Denis, cephalophore

1 comment October 9th, 2011 Headsman

October 9 marks the feast date of the early Christian martyr Saint Denis.

Guess how he died:


(cc) image from minifig of the saint’s statue at Notre Dame.

When this missionary bishop to Paris got the Roman chop* for his conversions sometime after 250, he scooped up his own severed noggin and carried it to his preferred burial spot.

Upon that eventual pilgrimage site would spring up a medieval basilica whose 12th century renovation turned it into a pioneer of Gothic architecture.

(Denis is also sort of the namesake for the Parisian hill Montmarte where he’s supposed to have been put to death: “mountain of Mars” in heathen times, it Christianized to mons martyrium, “Martyrs’ Mountain”.)

While many Christian martyrs carry the instruments of their martyrdom in iconography, and a few others roll with the bits of severed flesh exacted by those martyrdoms, Denis is only the most notable of an entire designated sub-class who carry their own heads: cephalophores.

This subject, seemingly tailor-made for a They Might Be Giants song, finally got one in 2011: “You Probably Get That A Lot”.


A most profane footnote was appended to our holy man’s legend during the French Revolution.

Journalist Camille Desmoulins once recklessly sneered of Robespierre‘s vain lieutenant Saint-Just, “He carries his head like a sacred host.”

Saint-Just is supposed to have retorted upon hearing the slight, “I’ll make him carry his like Saint Denis.” He did it, too.

* Two companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius, were doing the same conversions and suffered the same execution. Nobody named cathedrals after them.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,History,Martyrs,Power,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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1766: Jean-François de la Barre, freethinker martyr

3 comments July 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1766, a 20-year-old French chevalier’s freethinking proclivities got him beheaded and burned for impiety in one of Bourbon France’s most notorious episodes of religious chauvanism.

Check that date again. This is 69 years after the British Isles’ last execution for blasphemy; Voltaire was alive, and already in his dotage — and the fact that young Chevalier de la Barre was reading him was proclaimed as evidence. Such a benighted proceeding with the French Revolution on the horizon calls Dickens to mind:

it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness

The luckless youth and a couple of friends had pissed off a local judge, which got ugly for them when the unexplained vandalism of a town crucifix availed the opportunity for the magistrate to wield a sledgehammer against a fly.

De la Barre’s volume of Voltaire was tossed onto the pyre with him. That Enlightenment colossus made a measured posthumous effort at having the boy rehabilitated* — primarily for the benefit of his more judicious friend, who had fled the country and required his death sentence in absentia be lifted in order to inherit the family estate — but the verdict was not set aside until the French Revolution, a few months after the end of the Terror.

France’s overall secular trajectory since has rendered this date a sort of national freethinkers’ holiday, Chevalier de la Barre Day. A statue of its namesake stands in Paris’ Montmarte:

* Voltaire’s writings on the case in the original French are collected by the Association Le Chevalier de la Barre here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,France,Freethinkers,God,History,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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