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Don’t lose your head (Medieval Avengers #4)

This episode of Medieval Avengers (a.k.a. the Fourteen Holy Helpers) looks at two saints with atypical heads.

St Denis, Super Cephalophore

Denis, or Dionysius, does not carry his head upon his neck like your average Joe. No, Denis carries his head in his hands. Denis is a cephalophore, a head-carrying saint. He’s no average Joe but Denis isn’t that unique in his cephalophorism – there’s a whole list of headless holies here. Some artists put the cephalophore’s halo where the head used to be; others have the saint carrying the halo along with the head. This fifteenth-century illuminator just couldn’t choose, so here Denis gets two halos!


St Denis holding his head in a Book of Hours. Attributed to the Master of Sir John Fastolf. France or England, c. 1430-1440. Getty Museum, MS 5, fol. 35v.

The first bishop of Paris, Denis preached the Christian faith in France during the 3rd century. Preaching the Christian faith in the 3rd century usually didn’t end well. Denis was martyred along with his buddies Rusticus and Eleutherius during the reign of Roman Emperor Decius.

Denis suffered a series of terrible punishments. He was whipped, barbecued, and presented to wild beasts for dinner – but hagiographical wild beasts never have a taste for saint’s flesh. The saint was then tortured on a cross before he was finally decapitated.


St Denis. Musée de Cluny, Paris. Photo by Guillaume Blanchard. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Interestingly, a lot of Denis’s popularity probably came from a name mix-up. His cult spread during the ninth century, partly due to people confusing him with Dionysius the Areopagite, disciple of St Paul.

Denis is invoked against demonic possession and (of course) headaches. I guess decapitation is one way to get rid of a headache. I prefer paracetamol.

St Christopher, The Giant Dog-head

Christopher is not a cephalophore but a cynocephalus, a dog-headed person. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a medieval depiction of Christopher as cynocephalus (please share if you have one), but here is an icon from the 17th century.


17th-century icon of St Stephen and St Christopher. Found on this blog.

For some reason this isn’t what people think of when someone says “St Christopher”. In his wonderfully titled Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?, Robert Bartlett explains, “…the tradition that St. Christopher had a dog’s head was gradually marginalized by the portrayal of him carrying the infant Christ”. This saddens me greatly – a cynocephalus makes a way better superhero than your everyday giant. Although not a cephalophore, Christopher, in a way, has also lost his head.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 17.27.56

“Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child”, by Willem Vrelant. Bruges, early 1460s. From The J. Paul Getty Museum through Getty’s Open Content Program.

Christopher was martyred in 3rd-century Asia Minor; like Denis, he had the misfortune of living during the reign of good old Emperor Decius. He has been worshipped from as early as the 5th century in Turkey. Christopher was a giant – 5 cubits tall (that’s 7.5 feet or 2.3 metres). His height was probably useful for ferrying the needy across the river. One day Christopher carried the Christ child across, and that day he converted to Christianity.

The Golden Legend, or Aurea Legenda (compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in 1275), summarises Christopher’s deeds and death:

…he recalled 48,000 men from the error of paganism to the cult of Christian dogma. Nicaea and Aquilina had been engaged in prostitution in a public brothel, but he won them over to the practice of chastity and schooled them to receive the crown of martyrdom. For this he was strapped into an iron chair in the middle of a blazing fire but feared no harm from the heat. For a whole day the storm of arrows shot by the soldiers could not pierce him; yet one arrow struck the executioner in the eye, and the blessed martyr’s blood mixed with earth restored his sight and by removing the body’s blindness also illumined his mind….

Christopher is invoked against a number of troubles and maladies, including bubonic plague, sudden death, danger while traveling, toothaches, hurricanes, and hail. Not a bad giant to have on your side.


The legend of Saint Christopher carrying the Christ child across the river, with the Christian hermit holding a lantern. This is one of the earliest dated woodcut prints. Artist unknown. Bruges, 1423. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Works Cited

Bartlett, Robert. Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015: p. 493.

Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints. Trans. William Granger Ryan. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993: II, p. 14.



3 comments on “Don’t lose your head (Medieval Avengers #4)

  1. Pingback: Soldier Saints (Medieval Avengers #5) | beoshewulf

  2. Pingback: A doctor, a miracle boy, and an exorcist (Medieval Avengers #6) | beoshewulf

  3. Pingback: Meet the medieval Avengers – Getting Medieval with Comics

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This entry was posted on March 1, 2016 by in Saints and tagged , , , , , .
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