Friday, 3 July 2015

Saints Lives: Saint Denis

Jamb statue from the
West Facade of Notre
Dame de Paris
As I said in last Friday’s post on the Basilica-Cathedral Saint Denis, today’s post is on the saint the church is dedicated to.

His feast day is October 9th in the Western church and October 3rd in the Eastern church, and he is the patron saint of France. He is generally portrayed as holding the head that was chopped off.

Saint Denis (Denis being the French* form of the name Dionysius)’s legend was confused with that of two other figures, the first being the 1st C. Dionysius the Areopagite, the second being a 5th or 6th C. writer who assumed the name so his writing would be given more authority. This is the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite whose writings on light and God influenced Abbot Suger in his redesign of the Basilica of St Denis. Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, dates from the 3rd C, though the first written account of his life dates from c. 600.

The information below comes from The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, translated by William Granger Ryan (volume II). Princeton University Press, 1995. pp 236-241. Saints lives weren’t examined critically in the middle ages, so don’t expect the information below to sound particularly credible from a modern standpoint. But this is how medieval people understood his story. Jacobus compiled his ‘Readings on the Saints’ from various sources c.1260 and the book was a bestseller, with thousands of copies of the manuscript surviving.   


Dionysius, called the Areopagite because he was from that area of Athens, was an upper-class philosopher who was converted to Christianity by the Apostle Paul. Dionysius had noted a darkness that fell across the region that didn’t correspond with - or follow the rules of - an eclipse. When Paul explained that the darkness corresponded with Christ’s crucifixion and that Christ was ‘the Unknown God’ to whom the Athenians had created an altar for the event, he asked Paul to heal a blind man in Christ’s name. Paul told Dionysius the words to use and had Dionysius heal the man using them. Dionysius, his wife, and his household were all baptized. He was taught by Paul for three years and was then ordained Bishop of Athens. Though his preaching, he converted the city and much of the surrounding area. He visited Peter and Paul when they were in prison in Rome, and was present at the death of Mary, the mother of Christ.

Pope Clement, successor of Peter, sent him to preach in Gaul (modern day France), with Rusticus and Eleutherius as companions. When he arrived in Lutetia (Paris), he converted many people and built several churches. Pagan priests convinced the people to attack him, but he was protected by God, and they either grovelled at his feet in awe or ran away in fear. The devil got Emperor Domitian to issue the order than anyone found to be a Christian had to sacrifice to idols or be tortured. He sent a prefect, Fescenninus, to Lutetia, who then found Denis preaching about Christ. He had Denis and his 2 companions arrested, beaten, scourged, and imprisoned.
St Denis and his 2 companions being brought to prison,
left portal, Basilica-Cathedral Saint Denis
Several methods were used to torture or kill Denis without result including: an iron grill, hungry animals, and partial crucifixion. Denis performed a mass for his followers, many of whom were also now imprisoned with him. As he was giving the consecrated bread and wine to the people, Jesus appeared and, taking them from him, gave him communion as well.

St Denis receiving Communion from Christ while in prison,
right portal tympanum, Basilica-Cathedral Saint Denis
Brought before the prefect once more, the three men were tortured and beheaded. Denis’s body immediately stood up, picked up his head, and walked from his place of martyrdom (Montmartre - hill of martyrs) to the place where his body now rests (where the basilica-cathedral of St Denis now stands). The sounds of angels singing at this spot converted many, including Laertia, wife of the prefect Lubrius, who was then beheaded. Her son, serving in Rome, later returned to Lutetia and was baptized.
Life and martyrdom of St. Denis
South Transept portal tympanum, Basilica-Cathedral Saint Denis
Around A.D. 644 the Frankish King, Dagobert, held St. Denis in high regard, so much so that he hid in the church of St. Denis when he feared his father’s anger. A holy man had a vision that when Dagobert died and his soul was being brought for judgement, several saints accused him of stripping their churches of valuables. But the soul of St Denis protected him from their demands for punishment.

King Clovis had the body of St Denis uncovered and broke off and removed one of the arms. Soon after he lost his mind.

The passage in The Golden Legend ends with the following paragraph, “Note also that Hincmar, bishop of Rheims, says, in the letter he wrote to Charles, that the Dionysius who was sent to Gaul was Dionysius the Areopagite, as was said above. John Scotus makes the same assertion in a letter to Charles. This cannot be questioned, therefore, on the ground that the dates are contradictory, as some have tried to argue.” (p. 241).

In other words, it was recognized that they must be different men, even as they kept the idea that they were, somehow, the same figure.

According to Wikipedia:

In time, the "Saint Denis", often combined as "Montjoie! Saint Denis!" became the war-cry of the French armies. The oriflamme, which became the standard of France, was the banner consecrated upon his tomb. 
Oriflamme copy at Basilica-Cathedral St. Denis
Stained glass window at Chartres showing
St. Denis handing the oriflamme to a knight.
Click the images to see them larger, and check out this webpage for a clearer image of the stained glass.

* This is one of those things that took me ages to grasp, that names can change drastically from one language to another. It was years before I made the connection between Santiago de Compostella (Spanish) and Saint James (English).

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Shout-Out: nEvermore! Tales of Murder, Mystery and the Macabre edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles

Compiled by multi-award winning editors, Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles, nEvermore! Tales of Murder, Mystery and the Macabre presents a tantalizing selection of imaginative stories by New York Times bestselling and prize-winning authors, including:
Colleen Anderson
Kelley Armstrong
Margaret Atwood
Robert Bose
Jane Petersen Burfield
Rick Chiantaretto
J. Madison Davis
Barbara Fradkin
Nancy Holder
Michael Jecks
Tanith Lee
Robert Lopresti
Richard Christian Matheson
David McDonald
Lisa Morton
William Nolan (with Jason Brock, Sunni Brock)
Loren Rhoads
Christopher Rice
Thomas S. Roche
Uwe Sommerlad
Carol Weekes & Michael Kelly
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

This anthology consists of 22 original tales that blend supernatural and mystery elements in unique re-imaginings of Edgar Allan Poe's exquisite stories.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Books Received in June of 2015

Many thanks to Tor for sending me the following titles for review.

Blood of the Cosmos by Kevin Anderson - This is book two of his Saga of Shadows trilogy that started with The Dark Between the Stars.

An epic space opera of the titanic conflict of several galactic civilizations against a life-destroying force of shadows, a dark cosmic force that has swept through the undercurrents of the human interstellar empire.
The intertwined plots, overflowing with colorful ideas, a large cast of characters, and complex storylines, span dozens of solar systems, alien races, and strange creatures.

As the second book of the trilogy opens, the humans and Ildirans, having narrowly escaped annihilation at the hands of the Shana Rei and their robot allies in Book One, are desperate to find a way to combat the black cloud of antimatter of the Shana Rei. The mysterious alien Gardeners, who had helped them previously, turn out to be a disaster in disguise and because of them, the world tree forests are again in danger. The allies believing they have found a way to stop their dreaded enemies, a new weapon is tested, but it's a horrible failure, throwing the human race and its allies to the brink of extinction.

Corsair by James Cambias - A novel of space pirates and hackers.  I'm currently reading his debut which came out last year, A Darkling Sea.

In the early 2020s, two young, genius computer hackers, Elizabeth Santiago and David Schwartz, meet at MIT, where Schwartz is sneaking into classes, and have a brief affair. David is amoral and out for himself, and soon disappears. Elizabeth dreams of technology and space travel and takes a military job after graduating. Nearly ten years later, David is setting himself to become a billionaire by working in the shadows under a multiplicity of names for international thieves, and Elizabeth works in intelligence preventing international space piracy. With robotic mining in space becoming a lucrative part of Earth's economy, shipments from space are dropped down the gravity well into the oceans. David and Elizabeth fight for dominance of the computer systems controlling ore drop placement in international waters. If David can nudge a shipment 500 miles off its target, his employers can get there first and claim it legally in the open sea. Each one intuits that the other is their real competition but can't prove it. And when Elizabeth loses a major shipment, she leaves government employ to work for a private space company to find a better way to protect shipments. But international piracy has very high stakes and some very evil players. And both Elizabeth and David end up in a world of trouble.

Trial of Intentions by Peter Orullian - Book two of the Vault of Heaven series, begun with The Unremembered.

The gods who created this world have abandoned it. In their mercy, however, they chained the rogue god--and the monstrous creatures he created to plague mortalkind--in the vast and inhospitable wasteland of the Bourne. The magical Veil that contains them has protected humankind for millennia and the monsters are little more than tales told to frighten children. But the Veil has become weak and creatures of Nightmare have come through. To fight them, the races of men must form a great alliance to try and stop the creatures.
But there is dissent. One king won't answer the call, his pride blinding him even to the poison in his own court. Another would see Convocation fail for his own political advantage. And still others believe Convocation is not enough. Some turn to the talents of the Sheason, who can shape the very essence of the world to their will. But their order is divided, on the brink of collapse.
Tahn Junell remembers friends who despaired in a place left barren by war. One of the few who have actually faced the unspeakable horde in battle, Tahn sees something else at work and wonders about the nature of the creatures on the other side of the Veil. He chooses to go to a place of his youth, a place of science, daring to think he can find a way to prevent slaughter, prevent war.
And his choices may reshape a world . . . .

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

History Book Review: The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe by E. M. Rose

Pros: fascinating interpretation, lots of endnotes and explanation

Cons: highly academic 

The accusation that the Jews of the city of Norwich murdered the apprentice William in a mockery of the crucifixion, and the Life of St William that was later written, set the stage for similar accusations in the future, accusations that eventually saw Jews burned at the stake and expelled from the cities they called home.

This is a highly academic book that goes over a wide variety of background information (family trees, identities of various players - and their relations to others who may have had influence, the second crusade, the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, etc.).  As Rose is using very limited sources with regards to the actual blood libel cases, there’s a sometimes circuitous route from the background information to how it ties into the cases.  It’s quite a fascinating piece of deductive reasoning, putting minor clues together to form a cohesive and intelligent narrative, - even if it’s admittedly based on numerous suppositions.  

Rose is obviously aware of all of the scholarship that’s been done on this topic and refutes a lot of theories.  For example, there’s the idea that all blood libel cases involved rioting and executions or expulsions, which may be the case for later centuries, but when the cases first appeared any negative consequences generally followed years later, and tended to have political and/or economic reasons behind them (from forcing the Jews to ransom themselves so their captor could pay bills to acquiring their land and assets).  While a lot of Rose’s conclusions are based on thin information, there’s enough supporting evidence to show that - though they can’t be proved conclusively -they are plausible.

Rose proves that the murdered children themselves (assuming there’s even a body) are secondary to the economic and political concerns of those citing the accusation.  Though nominated for sainthood the boys hardly ever appear in liturgical calendars, prayers, artwork, etc.  

I found the earlier chapters very intense, and had to pay close attention in order to not get lost in the various strings being woven into the narrative.  Later chapters (particularly the ones in part 2), were much more linear and easier to follow.

Some of the background information was fascinating in its own right, like the extreme financial cost of going on crusade, the raids done by both sides during the civil war and how knights forced churches and civilians to ransom themselves to pay the costs of war (and/or for booty).  It also brought out the financial problems some nobles and churches had, and how unpalatable some of the clients were from the point of view of the moneylenders (both Christian and Jewish).  

Though the book is highly academic, Rose gave enough background information to allow me - a relative newcomer to the case - to follow along easily.  Not only that, the book revealed a lot about the state of research on these cases and how previous historians have interpreted the data.  It’s a fascinating history that examines numerous sides of the origins of the blood libel and how the story may have originally spread.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Shout-Out: Beyond Redemption by Michael Fletcher

A darkly imaginative writer in the tradition of Joe Abercrombie, Peter V. Brett, and Neil Gaiman conjures a gritty mind-bending fantasy, set in a world where delusion becomes reality . . . and the fulfillment of humanity’s desires may well prove to be its undoing.

When belief defines reality, those with the strongest convictions—the crazy, the obsessive, the delusional—have the power to shape the world.

And someone is just mad enough to believe he can create a god . . .

Violent and dark, the world is filled with the Geistrekranken—men and women whose delusions manifest. Sustained by their own belief—and the beliefs of those around them—they can manipulate their surroundings. For the High Priest Konig, that means creating order out of the chaos in his city-state, leading his believers to focus on one thing: helping a young man, Morgen, ascend to become a god. A god they can control.

Trouble is, there are many who would see a god in their thrall, including the High Priest’s own doppelgangers, a Slaver no one can resist, and three slaves led by possibly the only sane man left.

As these forces converge on the boy, there’s one more obstacle: time is running out. Because as the delusions become more powerful, the also become harder to control. The fate of the Geistrekranken is to inevitably find oneself in the Afterdeath. The question, then, is:

Who will rule there?

Friday, 26 June 2015

Medieval Cathedrals: Basilica-Cathedral of Saint Denis

[I'll be using a lot of architectural terms in this series of posts, and in the interests of not doing work that's already been done, instead of making my own glossary I'm linking to this excellent one by Athena Review.  With one noted exception, all photos used in this post are mine, and can be used by others provided you post a link to this page and credit me.]

Built on what was believed to be the resting place of Saint Denis (whom I'm planning a post for for next Friday), this basilica (which only became a cathedral in 1966) was the centre of worship for a benedictine abbey.  It was patroned by kings, and served as their mausoleum.  It was also used to house their war standard, the Oriflamme.  Before they went to war the kings would go to the abbey for a blessing and to retrieve their flag.

A copy of the Oriflamme is seen in the same area
as effigies for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Bourbon tombs in the crypt.

In the 12th century Abbot Suger, having read the works of Pseudo-Dionysius about the esthetics and symbolism of light as a way of seeking God and Heaven, wanted to allow more light into the church. The building style that came out of his ideas - vaulted roofs that put pressure on buttresses rather than the whole wall and allowed holes to be cut into the sides of the building to put in windows, the tripartate structure of the inside (of aisle arcade, gallery or triforium (in a few cases both), and clerestory) as well as the tripartite structure of the new west facade (with three portals for entering the church), became widespread and led to what we now call Gothic architecture.

Suger wrote two works that have come down to us, one on how he raised money for the rebuilding and one on some of the commissioned works that adorned it, including some stained glass scenes - featuring him - that have survived.  (The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a book you can download for free on his works.)  He was also the first to commission a stained glass window depicting the Tree of Jesse (some panels of which still exist).
Abbot Suger presenting the Tree of Jesse window to the right of the reclining King Jesse.
Abbot Suger at the feet of Mary in the Annunciation panel.
Rather unusually, Suger started his renovations with the west end of the church from 1135-40, creating the first three portaled west facade.

The facade is currently undergoing renovations and is boarded up, so I'm including a photo from wikimedia taken by Ordifana75.
Basilica-Cathedral St Denis, June 2015
Photo by Ordifana75, 2010
A few things to note are the three portals, the circular rose window(which now has clock hands) with the symbols of the evangelists/beasts of Revelation in the 4 corners around it, and the crenelations along the top of the building, giving it the look of a castle.

The central portal depicts the Last Judgement.  Here is a photo of the door - with a mini Suger at the bottom left of the last supper image (right side, two down) - and the stone portal above it, with an image of Christ in Majesty, hands outflung as if hanging on the cross, that I took in 2003. (The other two doorways, both of which depict scenes of St. Denis' life, have been heavily restored.  The left portal is flanked by stone sculpture of the signs of the zodiac, while the right is flanked by a calendar of work done during each month.  Both of these are used by later cathedrals.)

The east end of the church (choir and chevet) was rebuilt next, from 1140-44.  This included lots of stained glass (the entire upper level of which was melted down for its lead and so contains modern glass).  He also had a double ambulatory constructed, so large numbers of pilgrims could walk around the chapels without disturbing the monks at worship.

The chevet
Ambulatory and radiating chapels

The nave, connecting Suger's two projects, was rebuilt starting in 1231 by Abbot Odo Clement, in the Rayonnant Gothic style, with thin walls and lots of windows.  The triforium level, usually backed by stone, was instead filled with stained glass, in addition to the windows in the aisle and clerestory, almost creating a wall of glass.

Elevation of the nave
The north transept sculpture (as well as the entire east end of the church, inner transept arms and crypt) is only visible if you pay to see the east end (normally Eur 8.50, but reduced to 6.50 when I was there due to the renovation work), is mostly broken archivolt sculpture.  There are traces on the bottom left of what may have been annunciation and visitation scenes, while the right shows definite signs of some sort of hell scene.  The stone tympanum has been replaced with wood.

The south transept has been restored and shows scenes of the life of St. Denis in the tympanum, with kings in the archivolts and on the jambs and a Virgin and Child trumeau.

For my trip I created a one page layout of the cathedral and all of its sculpture.  I was a little too rushed to use it properly, but I've updated it (based on what I learned on my trip) and present it here for anyone wishing to use it for their own trip or research.  If you use this for a website or school paper, please credit me as the creator and/or link back to this post.  The map of the tombs and the dates of those resting in them comes from this UK Tourism 93 website.  

[I'm not sure how to upload them as pdfs so I've converted them to jpgs.  They're printable, but the text is a bit blurry.  If you want the pdf files, email me and I'll send them to you.]

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Shout-Out: Illusive by Emily Lloyd-Jones

The X-Men meets Ocean's Eleven in this edge-of-your-seat sci-fi adventure about a band of "super" criminals.

When the deadly MK virus swept across the planet, a vaccine was created to stop the epidemic, but it came with some unexpected side effects. A small percentage of the population developed superhero-like powers, and Americans suffering from these so-called adverse effects were given an ultimatum: Serve the country or be declared a traitor.

Some people chose a third option: live a life of crime.

Seventeen-year-old Ciere Giba has the handy ability to change her appearance at will. She's what's known as an illusionist. She's also a thief. After crossing a gang of mobsters, Ciere must team up with a group of fellow super powered criminals on a job that most would have considered impossible: a hunt for the formula that gave them their abilities. It was supposedly destroyed years ago--but what if it wasn't?

Government agents are hot on their trail, and the lines between good and bad, us and them, and freedom and entrapment are blurred as Ciere and the rest of her crew become embroiled in a deadly race that could cost them their lives.