Friday, October 09, 2020

The Legend of St Denis

October 9 has traditionally been kept as the feast of Ss Denis (“Dionysius” in Latin) and Companions, who were martyred at Paris in the 3rd century. St John Leonardi, the founder of a small congregation of clerks regular, died on this day in 1609; when he was added to the general calendar in 1940, his feast was placed on top of that of the martyrs, who were thus reduced to a commemoration. In the post-Conciliar reform, however, both feasts have been made optional memorials, which means that the martyrs may now be celebrated more freely in the Ordinary Form than in the Extraordinary Form. That they should be present at all in the modern liturgy is very surprising, since St Denis is the subject of one of the most famous hagiographical confusions, of exactly the sort that led to the suppression or downgrading of so many other feasts.
A statue of St Denis, from the treasury of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Paris. One legend tells that St Denis was beheaded on the hill of Montmartre which overlooks Paris, after which he picked up his head and walked about 4 miles to the site where he is buried, the future location of the abbey which bears his name. (Photo courtesy of the Schola Sainte-Cécile.)
In his History of the Franks (I.30), St Gregory of Tours (538-94) lists Denis as one of seven men sent to Gaul as bishops to evangelize various cities during the reign of the Emperor Decius (249-51), and says that sometime after, he was “afflicted with various sufferings for the name of Christ, and ended the present life at the blow of a sword.” In the Martyrology incorrectly attributed to St Jerome, Denis is named on October 9th together with a priest and a deacon, Rusticus and Eleutherius, who are also mentioned in the prayer of their collective feast day. Their bodies were buried at a site a few miles to the north of Paris, and a church built over it, which Gregory of Tours mentions twice, once in connection with a miracle, and again when describing its profanation. Not long after his time, King Dagobert I (603-39) established a monastery under royal patronage at the site, and completely rebuilt the church; it was rebuilt again in the days of Pepin the Short and his son Charlemagne, the latter of whom attended its consecration in 775.

According to the revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints, even before the Carolingian period, St Denis of Paris had already been confused in some quarters with the Biblical figure of the same name (i.e. Dionysius), who was converted by the preaching of St Paul in Athens (Acts 17, 22-34). This preaching took place at the “Areopagus – the hill of Ares”, a large outcropping of the Athenian acropolis which was used as a place of judgment for serious crimes like murder; St Luke calls Dionysius “the Areopagite”, i.e., one of the judges who sat on the court held there. The Church historian Eusebius reports (3.4.11), on the witness of another Dionysius (a very common name in antiquity), bishop of Corinth in the later 2nd century, that the Areopagite was the first bishop of Athens; by the turn of the seventh century, he was believed to have died as a martyr, being burnt alive by the Emperor Domitian.
The Preaching of St Paul at Athens; a preparatory cartoon made by Raphael in the 1510s as part of a series of designs intended to be woven into tapestries; now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Sometime in the later 5th or early 6th century, an unknown Greek-speaking theologian produced a series of four treatises and ten letters, purporting to be works of Dionysius the Areopagite. This is not a case like those of Ss John Chrysostom or Augustine, among many others, to whom writings were very often mistakenly ascribed in later generations; the author clearly and deliberately intended to pass himself off as the contemporary of St Paul. To this end, he claims to have been present, along with Ss Peter and James, for the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Div. Nom. 3, 2), and addresses letters to Ss John the Evangelist, Timothy and Polycarp. Scholars generally suppose him to have been a Syrian; the dating of his works depends in part on the obvious influence upon them of the neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus, who died in 485. Further attempts to glean information about the author from his writings remain speculative.
By the first decades of the sixth century, these writings were cited by authors on both sides of the debate over the Monophysite heresy, which the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon had condemned in 451. Most notably, at a council held in Constantinople in 533, the Monophysites cited them in support of their teaching, to which the leader of the Catholic party replied that they were forgeries. Nevertheless, as the controversy continued, and as the heresy evolved into Monotheletism in the 7th century, they came to be gradually accepted as both genuine and orthodox by several important figures, the most significant being St Maximus the Confessor, who cited them at a council held in the Lateran Basilica in Rome in 649, under Pope St Martin I. They were further defended and cited to the same effect at the next two ecumenical councils, Third Constantinople in 680, and Second Nicea in 787. To this day, the Byzantine Rite’s liturgical texts for St Dionysius, “the Holy Martyr and Areopagite”, bishop of Athens, are filled with references to the writings, as for example, this hymn at Vespers: “Having made thy mind equal in honor to that of the Angels through virtue, o all-wise father Dionysius, thou didst write an account in (thy) holy books of the heavenly order of their hierarchy, and according to it, didst organize the orders of the Church’s government, likening them to the ranks of heaven.” (He is also the titular Saint of the Roman Catholic cathedral of Athens.)
An early 11th-century mosaic of St Dionysios the Areopagite, in the monastery of St Luke in Boeotia, Greece. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In the year 827, the Byzantine Emperor Michael II (820-29) sent a copy of the writings to Charlemagne’s son, King Louis the Pious, along with several other gifts. By coincidence, they happened to reach the king on the evening of October 8th, when he was at the royal abbey of St Denis for the vigil of the titular Saint’s feast day. The abbot, Hilduin, who was very close to the king, had them translated into Latin, although this translation was not very well done, and was replaced by another about 30 years later. At the king’s behest, he also wrote a life of St Denis, which definitively conflated the bishop of Paris with the Areopagite, ascribed his mission in Gaul to Pope St Clement I towards the end of the 1st century, and acknowledged the writings as his. This conflation was henceforth accepted, and remained the common legend of St Denis in western Europe for the next 700 years. The writings became extremely influential in the High Middle Ages; Hugh of St Victor, St Albert the Great, and yet another Denis, the great Carthusian theologian, wrote commentaries on them, and they are cited well over 2000 times in the works of St Thomas Aquinas.
In the Renaissance, when many of the certainties of the medieval tradition were being called into question, the authenticity of the writings, and the identification of the two Denises as the same person, were challenged by two of the most prominent among the great humanist scholars, Lorenzo Valla (1407-57), who also unmasked the forgery known as the Donation of Constantine, and later Erasmus. The question was the subject of much controversy and debate over the following centuries, with learned men, Catholic and Protestant, offering their opinions as both defenders and detractors of the tradition. The neo-Gallican revision of the Parisian liturgical books sided with the detractors by separating Denis into two persons, one of Athens, kept on his Byzantine date, October 3rd, and the other of Paris on the traditional date, without the title “Areopagite”, a change which was later harshly condemned by Dom Prosper Guéranger.
A leaf of a 15th century Missal according to the Use of Paris, with the Epistle of the Mass of St Denis, Acts 17, 22-34. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 859A)
It has to be said that this diffidence towards the traditional legend of St Denis is not entirely a novelty of the neo-Gallicans. The pre-Tridentine Roman Breviary devotes only a single lesson of less than 70 words to St Denis and his companions, which makes no mention of the theological treatises. It also says that he was sent to Gaul “by the Roman Pontiff”, without specifying which one, a clear sign of doubt about the legend that it was St Clement.
Much more tellingly, the pre-Tridentine Parisian Breviary also pointedly does not refer to Denis as the author of the Areopagitic corpus, although it does accept him as the Athenian disciple of St Paul and the contemporary of St Clement. The Matins lessons for the feast day and the days of its octave are taken directly from Hilduin’s life of the Saint, but omit the chapters (9-17) which describe the theological writings, nor is there any reference to them in any of the proper antiphons or responsories of the Office, or in the Sequence of the Mass. (The Epistle of the latter is the passage from Acts 17 cited above.)
In point of fact, it was only with the Tridentine revision that the Roman Breviary accepted Hilduin’s conflation of the Athenian and Parisian Denis as the same person. Furthermore, a sentence is added to the effect that “He wrote wondrous and indeed heavenly books, on the divine names, on the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies, on mystical theology, and certain others.” This is perhaps the only case in the Breviary of St Pius V in which the legend of a Saint moves further away from the more skeptical view, almost certainly due to the influence of Cardinal Baronius, who defended the traditional legend in his notes on the revision of the Martyrology.
As late as 1857, when the Abbé Migne put together his great corpus of Patristic writings, the Patrologia Graeca, which is arranged in chronological order, he put the Areopagitic corpus and associated writings, including several defenses of its authenticity, between the works of St Clement I and those of St Ignatius of Antioch. However, in 1895, two Catholic scholars, Hugo Koch and Josef Stiglmayer, working quite separately from each other, demonstrated the dependence of the writings on the works of Proclus, and the question is now universally regarded as settled in the negative. This also explains what was, of course, the strongest objection to their authenticity all along, namely, the complete absence of any reference to them in the writings of earlier Church Fathers.
Part of the choir of the abbey of St Denys. Around the year 1135, the abbot Suger began the process of enlarging the Carolingian church, during which the choir was rebuilt from 1140-44. Inspired by the Areopagite’s theology of light as an expression and manifestation of God’s presence, Suger created the idea of having huge walls of windows which flood the church’s interior with light; this is the foundation of the architecture style which we now call Gothic, and this choir is the first example of it. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Guilhem Vellut, CC BY 2.0)
As with the many controversies over the authorship of the books of the Bible, the assumption behind this debate was to a large degree that if a work is not genuinely by the author to whom it is attributed, it is therefore a forgery, and hence worthless. And likewise, as with the many controversies over the authorship of the books of the Bible, this assumption has more recently been to a large degree subsumed by an understanding that authenticity is principally an historical question, and one that need not always impinge on the value of a writing as a work of theology. In his series of Wednesday audiences on the Church Fathers, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the author of these writings (May 14, 2008), and explicitly rejected the idea that he passed himself off as the Areopagite in order to vest his work with the authority of one close to the Apostles, but rather, did so “to make an act of humility; he did not want to glorify his own name, he did not want to build a monument to himself with his work but rather truly to serve the Gospel, to create an ecclesial theology, neither individual nor based on himself.”

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