Our father among the saints Dionysius of Paris ((French): Denis de Paris), also Saint Denis or Denys was the first Bishop of Paris who was martyred in the third century in connection with the Valerian persection of Christians in A.D. 258,[note 1] together with his two companions the priest Rusticus and the deacon Eleutherius, at Montmartre (Hill of the Martyrs), Paris, France.
A later legend claims that after he was beheaded, Denis is said to have picked up his head and walked ten kilometres (six miles), from Montmartre to his burial place at Vicus Catulliacus, now known as the commune of St Denis, preaching a sermon the entire way, making him one of many cephalophores in hagiology.
Gregory of Tours states that Denis was bishop of the Parisii and was martyred by being beheaded by a sword.[note 2] It appears that Denis was sent from Italy with five other bishops to convert Gaul in the third century, forging a link with the “Apostles to the Gauls” reputed to have been sent out under the direction of Pope Fabian of Rome. This was after the persecutions under Emperor Decius had all but dissolved the small Christian community at Lutetia. Denis, with his inseparable companions Rusticus and Eleutherius, who were martyred with him, settled on the Île de la Cité in the River Seine. Roman Paris lay on the higher ground of the Left Bank (Rive Gauche (Paris)), away from the river.
“Of all the Roman missionaries sent into Gaul, St. Dionysius carried the faith the furthest into the country, fixing his see at Paris, and by him and his disciples the sees of Chartres, Senlis, and Meaux were erected, and shortly after, those of Cologne and others, which we find in a flourishing condition and governed by excellent pastors in the fourth century, witness St. Maternus of Cologne, SS. Fuscian and Victoricus, Crispin and Crispinian, Rufinus and Valerius, Lucian of Beauvais, Quintin, Piaton, Regulus or Riticius of Senlis, and Marcellus are called disciples or fellow-labourers of St. Dionysius, and came from Rome to preach the name of Christ in Gaul. We are assured in the acts of the martyrdom of St. Dionysius that this zealous bishop built a church at Paris, and converted great numbers to the faith. A glorious martyrdom crowned his labours for the salvation of souls, and the exaltation of the name of Christ.”
Denis, having alarmed the pagan priests by his many conversions, was executed by beheading on the highest hill in Paris (now Montmartre), which was likely to have been a druidic holy place. The martyrdom of Denis and his companions is popularly believed to have given it its current name, derived from the Latin mons martyrium (“The Martyrs’ Mountain”), although in fact the name is more likely to derive from mons mercurei et mons martis, Hill of Mercury and Mars.
After his head was chopped off, Denis is said to have picked it up and walked ten kilometres (six miles) from the summit of Mont Mars (now Montmartre), preaching a sermon the entire way, making him one of many cephalophores in hagiology.[note 3]
Another account has his corpse being thrown into the Seine, but recovered and honourably interred by a Christian lady named Catalla, not far from the place where they had been beheaded.
Veneration of Saint Denis began soon after his death. The bodies of Saints Denis, Eleutherius, and Rusticus were buried on the spot of their martyrdom, where the construction of the saint’s eponymous basilica was begun by Saint Geneviève in 469 AD, assisted by the people of Paris. Her Vita Sanctae Genovefae attests the presence of a shrine near the present basilica by the close of the fifth century (though the names of Rusticus and Eleutherius are non-historical).
The successor church was erected by Saint Fulrad, who became abbot of St. Denis’ Abbey in 749/50 and was closely linked with the accession of the Carolingians to the Merovingian throne.
In time, the “Saint Denis”, often combined as “Montjoie! Saint Denis!” became the war-cry of the French armies. The oriflamme, which became the standard of France, was the banner consecrated upon his tomb. His veneration spread beyond France when, in 754, Pope Stephen II, who was French, brought veneration of Saint Denis to Rome. Soon his cultus was prevalent throughout Europe.
The feast of Saint Denis was added to the Roman Calendar in the year 1568 by Pope Pius V, though it had been celebrated since at least the year 800.
In traditional Roman Catholic practice, Saint Denis is honoured as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Specifically, Denis is invoked against diabolical possession and headaches, and together with Sainte Geneviève is one of the patron saints of Paris.
Confusion with Dionysus the Areopagite
Around 814, Louis the Pious brought certain writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite to France, and since then it became common among the French legendary writers to argue that Denis of Paris was the same Dionysus who was a famous convert and disciple of Saint Paul. The confusion of the personalities of Saint Denis, Dionysus the Areopagite, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the author of the writings ascribed to Dionysius and brought to France by Louis, was initiated through an Areopagitica written in 836 by Hilduin, Abbot of Saint-Denis, at the request of Louis the Pious. “Hilduin was anxious to promote the dignity of his church, and it is to him that the quite unfounded identification of the patron saint with Dionysius the Areopagite and his consequent connexion with the apostolic age are due.”