Cephalophores

Today, via a wonderful Wikipedia entry, I learned about cephalophores, who had not entered my consciousness before. A cephalophore is a saint who is depicted as carrying his or her own head.

St.Denis relief on the Cathedral of Notre Dame

St.Denis relief on the Cathedral of Notre Dame

Generally, this is represents a holy person martyred by decapitation. After the execution, the de-capped body picks up the head which proceeds to speak or pray.

"Martyrdom of St. Denis" in the Pantheon

“Martyrdom of St. Denis” in the Pantheon

The most famous of cephalophores is St. Denis of Paris who walked six miles carrying his severed head which recited a sermon the entire time. It might be worth mentioning that Denis is the patron saint of both Paris and headache sufferers.

ceph_Denis_statue

There are many cephalophores; France alone boasts one hundred and thirty-four. Perhaps the French prediliction for cephalophores reflects some Gallic racial memory of ancestral Celts who were notorious head-hunters.

Celtic door arch at Roquepertuse with niches for heads.

Celtic door arch at Roquepertuse with niches for heads.

Severed heads that speak are a folk-lore motif catalogued by Stith Thompson. They appear in Greek myth and Aristotle was very concerned that his readers understand that this was not possible. No, he said, it cannot happen.

St. Solange. Her severed head called out Jesus' name three times.

St. Solange. Her severed head called out Jesus’ name three times.

One speechless cephalophore was St.Valerie of Limoges. Apparently, Valerie and her mother converted to Christianity while Valerie’s fiancé was out of town. When he returned to find that the engagement had been broken off and that Valerie had given all her property to the Church (including her intended dowry, no doubt), he became very upset and dispatched a servant to kill her. The servant cut off her head, Valerie picked it up and ascended to Heaven in a ball of light, accompanied by singing angels.

St. Valerie's martyrdom depicted on an enamelled reliquary from Limoges.

St. Valerie’s martyrdom depicted on an enamelled reliquary from Limoges.

Gone to glory or not, Valerie left some earthly remains which were disinterred in 985 AD and distributed in numerous reliquaries which just happened to be a major Limoges product in medieval times.

Different styles of head carriage: Saints Gemolus, Denis, Miliau, Denis again.

Different styles of head carriage: Saints Gemolus, Aphrodise, Miliau, Denis again.

The Wikipedia article notes that the artist depicting a cephalophore is presented with a unique problem: where do you put the halo? But there is another artistic concern: how does the beheaded handle his detached cranium? Some hold it close to their chest, some thrust forward on outstretched palms, some carry it to one side, possibly tucked underneath an arm. Clutching it by the hair and dangling it from an outstretched arm is possible, but really makes the halo problem more difficult, I think.

St.Nicasius at Reims Cathedral [photo by Geert Schneider on flickr.com]

St.Nicasius at Reims Cathedral [photo by Geert Schneider on flickr.com]

Then there is the statue of cephalphore Saint Nicasius at Rheims. He holds his head in an over/under two-handed grip, thrusting it slightly forward with a slight tilt of the noggin. His halo is behind his neck stump where two small beings, possibly other saints, hold a cloth on which are displayed their own heads, thus creating a superb display of cephalophoria.

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4 comments on “Cephalophores

  1. The Nag says:

    This post reminds me of a ghoulish song we used to sing as kids:

    With her head tucked underneath her arm she walks the bloody tower,
    With her head tucked underneath her arm at the midnight hour.

  2. pretty good article!

    there is a slight error in the legend ‘Different styles of head carriage: Saints Gemolus, Denis, Miliau, Denis again.’ the second image (black and white etching) is of saint aphrodise of béziers (reproduced in A. COSTE’s book ‘Saint Aphrodise – Apotre de Béziers et son Eglise à travers les âges’).
    if you want to know more about him (and you speak french…. english version not yet finished), here’s a little documentary i worked on: http://youtu.be/_gpg51TxalI

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