Saint Denis: The Iconography

In Paris, the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of the holy martyrs Dionysus the Areopagite, Bishop; Rusticus, Priest; and Eleutherius, Deacon. Dionysius was baptized by the Apostle Paul and ordained the first bishop of Athens. From there he came to Rome, from whence Pope Clement sent him into Gaul to preach. He went to Paris and for several years faithfully carried out his mission. Then, under the Prefect Fescenninus, he and his companions achieved martyrdom after terrible tortures. – Roman Martyrology for October 9

St. Dionysius ("Denis" in French) was the first bishop of Paris, martyred in 250. In later years his story was confused with that of Dionysus the Areopagite, who in Acts 18:34 became one of the Athenian followers of St. Paul and later, according to Eusebius, served as bishop of Athens (Butler, IV, 66). In the Golden Legend, he was an Athenian philosopher who before Paul's arrival had struggled to understand the reason for the Good Friday eclipse. The Roman Breviary says he exclaimed on that day that either God must be suffering or the world is falling apart (image).1 Fra Angelico therefore adds his portrait to those of the prophets in the border of his Crucifixion.
St. Dionysus: Detail from Fra Angelico's Crucifixion, 1441-43. See the description page for further details.
In the Golden Legend after his conversion Dionysus travels with two companions to Paris, where he is successful in bringing many people to the new faith. In response, the Romans put him through a number of tortures and then cast him into prison, where Christ brings him bread. He is then beheaded with his companions.

Portraits have him dressed as a bishop and holding his head in his hands, as at right.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-23.

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SHOWN ABOVE:
Henri Bellechose, The Martyrdom of St.Denis. See the description page for details.

OTHER IMAGES

Statue of St. Denis at Notre Dame in Paris – See the description page

St. Denis in a predella in Munich – See the description page

DATES

  • Feast day: October 9

BIOGRAPHY

1 Breviarium Romanum, 1064 (for October 9, the feast of St. Dionysus).

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