Three Tales from Montmartre

Three Tales from Montmartre
Montmartre is full of stories, many of which can be fleshed out by sights you will see if you visit the area today. Here are three very different tales, one legendary, one fictional and one historically accurate, which illustrate aspects of this fascinating corner of Paris and range from the third to the 20th centuries.  The Legend of St Denis The legend of St Denis is unforgettable. It is said that in the third century, an elderly Christian, over 100 years old, was tortured by the Romans – beaten, burned, thrown to the lions – and then sentenced to be executed. Awaiting his fate in prison, he was visited by angels, which is said to explain the miracle which followed. After he was beheaded, he picked up his own head, washed it in a nearby stream and carried it several miles across the countryside, preaching a sermon as he went, to the site where he wished to be buried. Only then did he lie down to die.  That is how St Denis earned his sainthood, how the Basilique St Denis came to be built and how Montmartre got its name, because the hill outside Paris where this story begins was known as Mons Martyrum, or the mountain of the martyrs.       Denis, thought to have been the first Bishop of Paris, had been sent to Gaul by the pope, with a mission to convert its people to Christianity. He and the apostles he brought with him to Lutetia, as Paris was then called, were so successful, gaining followers and founding many churches, that the Romans felt they had to act. Denis was arrested, along with two companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius and on the orders of the Roman Governor, all three were taken out to the highest hill outside the city, the site known today as Montmartre, and executed.  A statue of St Denis on the Notre-Dame facade. Photo credit: Thesupermat/Wikimedia Commons Today you can see a tall stone statue of St Denis in the Place Suzanne Buisson in Montmartre. He stands holding his head in his hands, still adorned by his bishop’s mitre. Also, at 11, Rue Yvonne le Tac, just off the Rue des Martyrs, is the Martyrium, a crypt built on the site where it is thought St Denis was beheaded. It’s a simple little room with cream-colored walls, a plain altar and a few wooden chairs, a much-visited shrine until the revolution, then restored in the 19th century. You can visit on Friday afternoons and see the marble plaque commemorating both St Denis and St Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit movement, who took his vows here in the 16th century.    And of course there is the Basilique St Denis, the glorious gothic cathedral, built in the 12th century by Abbot Suger on the spot said to have been chosen by St Denis. Earlier Christians had marked the site with a small shrine and the abbot is said to have had the saint’s remains – and those of his two companions – reburied under the high altar of his new cathedral. There is an intangible legacy too, for St Denis became the patron saint of France and the oriflamme, the sacred battle standard used by the early French kings, was consecrated on his tomb. The battle cry of their armies was Montjoie! Saint Denis! Today, Catholics still celebrate his Feast Day every year on October 9th.

Lead photo credit : Basilique_Saint-Denis, Photo by: Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.