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

In The Martyrdom of St. Denis above (1415-16), Christ brings Holy Communion to St. Denis in prison on the left, as recounted in the Golden Legend. On the right the saint's beheading is rendered in a sort of stop-motion sequence: the executioner raises the cleaver; the kneeling saint's neck is severed; the trunk and head are fallen on the ground.

Perhaps significantly, the head that we see on the block wears a bishop's mitre but the head on the ground is bare and tonsured. (See the description page.)

The center of the painting resembles the "Throne of Mercy" iconographic type, but without a dove. Its prominence in the composition expresses the unity between Denis's passion and Christ's.

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, the Athenian bishop travels to Paris, plants the Church there, and is beheaded by the Romans after a spell in prison during which Christ brings Holy Communion to him and his fellow prisoners.

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.


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

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


  • Feast day: October 9