Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Hail, Denis, Bishop and Martyr

"Martyrdom of St. Denis,"  tympanum of the basilica of St. Denis

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Denis (d. ca. 250 AD).  Born in Italy, Denis was sent to France by Pope Fabian to restore the Church there, which had suffered greatly in the Decian persecution.   Denis and his companions built a chapel on an island in the Seine in what is today the city of Paris, and saw to it that Mass was said there regularly.  He also preached the Gospel and won many converts, thereby enflaming the envy of the local pagan priests, who used their influence with the Roman governor to bring about St. Denis's martyrdom.  After suffering various tortures, Denis was beheaded at Montmartre (the "mountain of the martyr"), whereupon, according to legend, he picked up his own head and carried it to the place he wished to be buried.   The spot became a place of pilgrimage, and in 475 AD, St. Genevieve had a shrine erected there.  The chapel was enriched and beautified over the centuries, by Charlemagne among others, and eventually became an abbey and a basilica.  The basilica of St. Denis would figure prominently in the history of France.  Beginning with King Dagobert (d. 639 AD), practically every French king would be buried at St. Denis.  Also, the arms of the abbey of St. Denis, the oriflamme, would become the standard of the kings of France.   The banner bearing the oriflamme was kept above St. Denis' high altar, and was removed only when carried to the field of battle before the king himself.  The oriflamme's last appearance in battle was at Agincourt in 1415, a catastrophic day of slaughter for the French.  After winning historic victories at the head of the armies of France, St. Joan of Arc hung up her arms at St. Denis in 1429.   During the French Revolution, the tombs of the French kings at St. Denis were opened and looted, and the royal remains were cast into a mass grave.  The basilica's lead roof was soon afterwards cut away and melted down for bullets.  For a time, the basilica lay in ruins, but was restored by Viollet-le-Duc, and is today a national monument of France.

St. Denis, pray for us.

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