Saint of the Salt Castle: Discovering Saint Rupert in Salzburg, Austria


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Statue of Saint Rupert (detail), Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint John the Baptist (Stiftskirche St. Peter und Johannes der Taüfer), Berchtesgaden, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert (detail), Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint John the Baptist (Stiftskirche St. Peter und Johannes der Taüfer), Berchtesgaden, Germany

Salt of the Earth

In his wide-ranging history of salt, Salt:  A World History, Mark Kurlansky retells the story of a French princess who infuriated her father by declaring she loved him like salt.  “Only later,” Kurlansky writes, when the king “is denied salt does he realize its value and therefore the depth of his daughter’s love.”[1]  Because salt is “so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive,” Kurlansky explains, “we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”[2]  Salt was so precious, Roman soldiers were once paid an amount of money for the purchase of salt, known as a salarium — that is, a “salary.”[3]  Salt was also fundamental to the growth of several European cities, including the great city of Salzburg, Austria.  The name “Salzburg,” in fact, derives from the German word for salt (Salz) and the word for castle (Burg).

View of Hohensalzburg Castle from Mirabell Palace and Gardens, Salzburg, Austria

View of Hohensalzburg Castle from Mirabell Palace and Gardens, Salzburg, Austria

The rise and development of Salzburg, however, was far from inevitable.  By the 7th century, the city, then known as Juvavum, was in ruin following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the catastrophic breakdown of public infrastructure throughout the region.[4]  The work of an enterprising saint, and a little bit of salt, however, helped revive Salzburg’s fortunes.  The saint was Saint Rupert, first Bishop of Salzburg, whose likeness appears throughout the city and region to this day.  He is commonly portrayed carrying a vessel of salt, his traditional emblem in art — and an apt attribute for the patron saint of the Salt Castle.

Statue of Saint Rupert, Salzburg Cathedral, Salzburg, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert, Salzburg Cathedral, Salzburg, Austria

Man of Salt

Who was Saint Rupert, and why is he so closely associated with Salzburg?  According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Saint Rupert was either a Frank or an Irishman who had once been Bishop of Worms.[5]  In approximately 697, Saint Rupert and several companions traveled to Regensburg to visit Duke Theodo of Bavaria, a powerful ruler “without whose permission nothing much could be done.”[6]  Saint Rupert eventually converted and baptized the duke, who afterwards became Saint Rupert’s patron.  With the duke’s support, Saint Rupert reestablished Christianity along the Danube, in an area stretching from Regensburg to Lorch.[7]

Instead of settling in either of these places, however, Saint Rupert chose to establish himself in the “old ruined town of Juvavum.”[8]  Juvavum contained a number of Roman-era buildings, though most were “dilapidated” and “overgrown with briars and brushwood.”[9].  The ancient town’s main advantage was its location in a prospering commercial area, in a region rich in salt.

Statue of Saint Rupert, Cemetery of Saint Sebastian, Salzburg, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert, Cemetery of Saint Sebastian, Salzburg, Austria

Saint Rupert petitioned Duke Theodo for the territory of Juvavum, and the duke readily agreed.  Soon after, Saint Rupert erected the town’s first church, the Church of Saint Peter (Stiftskirche Sankt Peter), at the base of the Mönchberg.[10]  He also established the town’s first monastery and its first convent, Nonnberg Abbey, whose first abbess, Saint Erentrude, was Saint Rupert’s niece.

Part of Duke Theodo’s original donation included rich salt deposits, which were mined for their precious crystals.[11]  Saint Rupert is credited with establishing these first salt mines, which would become a source of the city’s great wealth and grandeur in later centuries.[12]  As the city prospered, wealth from salt mining enabled the arts to flourish.  Today, however, the influence of salt on the city’s growth and prosperity has been all but forgotten.  Instead, Salzburg is celebrated as an elegant city of music, the birthplace of Mozart and, more recently, the backdrop of the perennially popular movie The Sound of Music.

View of Salzburg from Festung Hohensalzburg.  Salzburg Cathedral, with green dome, is visible in the foreground, to the right.

View of Salzburg from Festung Hohensalzburg. Salzburg Cathedral, with its distinctive green dome, is visible near the center of the photograph.

Skeletons at the von Trapp Wedding

Located 17 miles east of Salzburg, in the charming lakeside town of Mondsee, Austria, the parish church of Saint Michael (Pfarrkirche St Michael), is the second largest church in Upper Austria.  Built in the late 15th century, the twin towers and pale yellow of the church’s exterior may strike some as vaguely familiar.  As it turns out, the church served as the setting of Fraulein Maria’s wedding to Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

The interior of the church features striking vaulted ceilings, a riot of carved and painted figures, and various gilded Baroque altars, including five by the famed Swiss sculptor Meinrad Guggenbichler.[13]  The church also houses a number of relics, some of which make brief cameos in the wedding scene of The Sound of Music. The relics of Blessed Konrad II are the most notable.  Located directly above the tabernacle behind the high altar, the seated skeleton of Blessed Konrad II, a 12th century abbott of Mondsee, peers out from behind a glass enclosed niche.  The skeleton’s head is surrounded by a ray halo, and his left hand clutches a staff and palm frond, indicating a martyr’s death.  Apparently, Blessed Konrad II was killed defending his monastery, and his fellow monks believed his murder qualified him for martyrdom.[14]

Seven-Part Reliquary with the Relics of Blessed Konrad II of Mondsee, Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

Seven-Part Reliquary with the Relics of Blessed Konrad II of Mondsee, Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

An array of other relics, carefully arranged in two large reliquary cases, are displayed to Blessed Konrad II’s right and left.  The relics include various skulls and bones first collected and displayed in the church in the mid-18th century.  Below the reliquary cases, four additional skeletons may be seen reclining in individual cases, two triangular and two rectangular.  The skeletons look relaxed in their padded niches and observe the world as if from window of a passing train.  The skeletons belong to catacomb saints exhumed and transported to Mondsee from the catacombs of Rome. The altar itself is a remarkable early Baroque work by the sculptor Hans Waldburger.  Dating to 1626, the altar features a depiction of Saint Michael the Archangel placidly slaying a dragon.  The altar is the only extant altar by Waldburger.[15]

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria.  The high altar, which dates to 1626, is the work of Hans Waldburger.

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria. The high altar, which dates to 1626, is the work of Hans Waldburger.

Salzburg Cathedral

Saint Rupert died in 710, and is buried in the crypt of Salzburg Cathedral.  Consecrated to Saint Rupert and Saint Virgil in 774, the cathedral has been rebuilt and modified several times since its founding.  In 1167, for example, the Counts of Plain, knights loyal to the the emperor Barbarossa, set fire to the cathedral, burning it virtually to its foundation.[16]

Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

The cathedral was rebuilt, but burned again in 1598.  The subsequent rebuilding effort, led by Salzburg’s archbishop at the time, Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, outraged city residents who were shocked by Wolf Dietrich’s ruthless destruction of the cathedral’s cemetery, including the desecration of countless graves, for the rebuilding project.[17]  After Wolf Dietrich was captured and imprisoned by Bavarian troops in a dispute over salt mining rights, Wolf Dietrich’s successor, Markus Sittikus von Hohenems, commissioned a new architect to complete the cathedral’s reconstruction.

Interior of Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Interior of Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Reconsecrated in 1628, the new, Baroque cathedral remained virtually unchanged until 1944, when a bomb crashed through the dome, destroying part of the chancel.  After extensive renovations, the cathedral was consecrated a third time, in 1959.  The three gates to the cathedral commemorate the three consecrations by displaying the years “774,” “1628,” and “1959” in gold above the portals.[18]

Back to the Salt Mines

Although Saint Rupert does not hover above the tabernacle of Salzburg Cathedral like Blessed Konrad II in Mondsee, images of Saint Rupert throughout the church and city serve as a reminder of his role in the city’s early history.  As already noted, Saint Rupert is frequently shown carrying a vessel of salt, an acknowledgment of his influence on Salzburg’s salt trade.  The container of salt, however, may hint at another of Saint Rupert’s accomplishments.  In addition to establishing the city’s first salt mines, Saint Rupert was responsible for changing the city’s original name, Juvavum, to something more relevant and more enduring.  The name he chose, of course, was “Salzburg,” the Salt Castle.

High Altar, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom) Salzburg, Austria

High Altar, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom) Salzburg, Austria.  Saint Rupert is depicted atop the altar carrying a barrel of salt in his left hand and a bishop’s crozier in his right.  Saint Virgil is also represented atop the altar, opposite Saint Rupert.

Statue of Saint Rupert, Saint Andreas Parish Church, Berchtesgaden, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert, Parish Church of Saint Andreas, Berchtesgaden, Germany

Interior of Dome, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Interior of Dome, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria. The dome was pierced by an aerial bomb in WWII.  Repairs to the cathedral were not completed until 1959.

[1]  Mark Kurlansky, Salt:  A World History 6 (2002).

[2]  Id.

[3]  2 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 2653 (5th ed., 2002).

[4]  Juvavum was one of the principle towns of the Roman frontier province of Noricum.

[5]  1 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 700 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[6]  Id.

[7]  Id.

[8]  Id.

[9]  13 Catholic Encyclopedia 229 (Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds 1912).

[10]  Id. The church was established where Saint Maximus, a follower of Saint Severin, was martyred in 476.

[11]  Id.

[12]  Saleem H. Ali, Treasure of the Earth:  Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future 34 (2009).

[13]  John Bourke, Baroque Churches of Central Europe 266 (1958).

[14]  Blessed Konrad II of Mondsee,, available at

[15]  10 Dictionary of German Biography 314 (Walther Killy et al., eds, 2006).

[16]  Salzburg Cathedral, Salzburg Travel Guide,

[17]  Id.

[18]  Id.

Relic of the Holy Diaper: The Swaddling Clothes of Jesus


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Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on panel (1477), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on panel (1477), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Swaddling Clothes

One of the more remarkable relics on display in the Reliquary Treasury of Dubrovnik Cathedral is the “diaper” of Jesus.  The relic is displayed in a bulky silver reliquary, profusely ornamented with winged figures, clunky arabesques, and other decorative accents.[1] While most translations into English describe the relic as a “diaper” or “diapers,” it could more accurately be described as the “swaddling cloth” or “swaddling clothes” of Jesus.[2]

Veneration of Jesus’ swaddling clothes is more frequently associated with Aachen, Germany, where a more famous set of swaddling garments has been kept since the 13th century.  Housed in the golden Shrine of Saint Mary (Marienshrein) at Aachen Cathedral, the swaddling clothes (Windel Jesu) were rarely put on public display prior to the 14th century.[3]  Since then, the relic has been exhibited in Aachen approximately every seven years.[4]  In comparison, the swaddling clothes kept at Dubrovnik Cathedral are regularly displayed in the cathedral’s astonishing treasury of saintly relics.


Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary), gold (1230-1239), Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany

Christmas Stockings

In a paper on Jesus’ swaddling clothes, Sophie Oosterwijk explains that since antiquity, “medical tradition held that the newborn child might develop deformed limbs if left unswaddled; therefore, swaddling clothes were considered absolutely essential not just for ordinary infants but also for the Christ child.”[5] Consequently, until about the 14th century, depictions of the Nativity commonly showed the infant Jesus tightly swaddled, his face serene in a cloth cocoon.[6]

Some paintings of this period, however, show the infant Jesus unswaddled, presumably mere moments after his birth.  According to one tradition, Jesus’ struggling parents were forced to reuse Joseph’s hose, the only extra cloth they had at hand, as makeshift swaddling clothes.[7]  Paintings inspired by this story frequently portray Joseph removing his shoes and stockings or ripping his hose into strips as Mary waits nearby.  “Mary, take my hose and wind your dear baby in them,” Joseph tells Mary in an early 15th century Nativity painting from a church in Lezignan.[8]  In another, Joseph seated on the ground with one bare foot extended, carefully cuts his hose into strips with a knife while a recumbent Mary watches from a mattress.[9]  Rogier van der Weyden’s famous Columba Altarpiece has also been tied to this tradition, though Joseph’s stockings are portrayed more subtly:  two squares of cloth laid in Jesus’ manger have been interpreted as Joseph’s repurposed hose.[10]

Joseph Malouel?, Nativity, oil on tempera (c. 1400), Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Malouel?, Nativity, oil on tempera (c. 1400), Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium (courtesy Wikimedia Commons). Here, Joseph can be seen cutting one of his stockings with a knife as Mary watches and the infant Jesus waits in a manger.

As Oosterwijk observes, the tradition of Joseph and his hose “illustrates the medieval need to explain the details of the Virgin’s reported confinement far away from the comfort of a regular nursery . . . , thus emphasizing Christ’s humility.  Instead, it is Joseph in his role of the family provider, rather than that of a natural father, who finds the solution for the lack of swaddling clothes by donating his own hose to cover the newborn Christ with in the cold winter night.”[11]

Adoration of the Magi (panel detail), Columba Altarpiece, oil on oak (c. 1455), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

Adoration of the Magi (panel detail), Columba Altarpiece, oil on oak (c. 1455), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.  The two squares of cloth padding the manger at left have been interpreted as Joseph’s hose.

God and Man

A curious book titled Excrement in the Late Middle Ages further explores the history and deeper theological meaning of Jesus’ swaddling clothes.  As the author, Susan Signe Morrison, notes, while stories about the baby Jesus’s swaddling clothes may seem “obscene or blasphemous,” they were, in fact, “produced within the confines of the sacred.”[12]  Miracles associated with Jesus’ swaddling clothes were described in the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ — a work condemned as heretical in the fifth century — and in stories describing the return of the Wise Men to their home countries.

Returning to the Christmas story as told in Luke 2:12, Morrison explains that Jesus’s swaddling clothes were provided “not just to keep him warm or to bind him in an imitation of the closeness of the womb.”[13]  Rather, “[t]he clothes clearly perform a key function:  to collect the filth the human baby ejects.”[14]  Morrison further explains that the “enfleshing of Christ is both most sacred (he became man to save us) and most profane (he took on the flesh that emits filth for us).”  Morrison concludes, “To be human is to eat; to be fully human, God must digest just as a human does.  As Tertullian argued, by taking on the filthy human body, Christ signals his profound humility and compassion.  God has divested himself of his omnipotence; what more overt way to do this than to become a helpless, wriggling, filthy infant, utterly dependent upon others for nourishment, shelter, and personal hygiene?”[15]

Madonna and Child

Bernardino Luini, The Madonna of the Carnation, oil on panel (c. 1515), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

[1]  See, e.g., Ante Dračevac, La Cathedrale de Dubrovnik 50 (Françoise Kveder trans., 1988). Dating to the 16th century, the reliquary is the work of local Dubrovnik metalsmiths.  Id.

[2]  For example, an older guide to the cathedral, translated into French and no longer in print, describes the relic as “des langes de Jésus.”  Id.

[3]  Joan Carroll Cruz, Relics 23 (1984).

[4]  Id.

[5]  Sophie Oosterwijk, The Swaddling-Clothes of Christ:  A Medieval Relic on Display, 13 Medieval Life 25-30 (2000).

[6]  See id. at 25.

[7]  Incidentally, Saint Joseph’s hose is also purportedly stored in the Marienshrein, along with Jesus’ swaddling clothes, the robe of Saint Mary, and the beheading cloth of Saint John the Baptist.  Photographs of all four relics, which comprise the four great relics of the Marienschrein, can be found here.

[8]  Gail McMurray Gibson, “St. Margery:  The Book of Margery Kempe,” in Equally in God’s Image:  Women in the Middle Ages 152 (Julia Bolton Holloway et al., eds., 1990).

[9]  The painting is the Nativity panel of a polyptych by an unknown artist, possibly Jean Malouel, painted c. 1400.

[10]  See, e.g., Oosterwijk, supra note 5, at 28.

[11]  Id.

[12]  Susan Signe Morrison, Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics 92 (2009).

[13]  Id. at 93.

[14]  Id.

[15]  Id. (internal citations omitted).

The Head-Carriers: Headless Saints from Saint Denis to Saint Nicasius


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Saint Denis - Notre Dame Cathedral

Saint Denis, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Saints Without Heads

As we’ve noted before, saints portrayed in Christian art often carry objects that help identify them in art.  While some saints carry relatively benign, pedestrian objects — Saint Anthony often carries a white lily, Saint Notburga an ear of corn — others tote more lethal implements including an assortment of knives, swords, arrows, and wooden stakes.  Martyrs in particular are frequently shown with deadly devices, generally the instruments of their martyrdom.  A curious subset of martyrs, however, are commonly shown carrying their own heads.  Known as cephalophores, literally “head-carriers” in Greek, these headless saints all suffered martyrdom by decapitation.  Although depicting cephalophores may at first seem straightforward, artists have struggled for centuries with an unusual problem presented by their portrayal:  Where does one place the halo on a headless saint?

Things Come to a Head:  Secular Examples of Animate, Headless Corpses

Headless Horseman

John Quidor, The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, oil on canvas (1858), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Stories of headless men and their improbable feats are not confined to the Roman Martyrology.  Secular examples include Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the 14th-century Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which features a remarkable contest known as a “beheading game.”  In the story of Gawain, a giant stranger known as the Green Knight appears before King Arthur’s court on New Year’s Day.  The Green Knight challenges the members of the court to strike him with his ax on the condition that he will return the blow in one year and a day.  Gawain accepts the challenge, and the Green Knight prepares to receive Gawain’s strike by brushing aside his long locks and laying bare his neck.  Gawain then grips the ax, raises it into the air, and lets it fall.

The author of the legend tells us, “The sharp edge of the blade sundered the bones, smote through the neck, and clave it in two, so that the edge of the steel bit on the ground, and the fair head fell to the earth . . . .”[1]  The Green Knight, however, “neither faltered nor fell,” but instead, with his hand out-stretched, caught the head, lifted it up, and mounted his steed “as if naught ailed him, and he were not headless.”[2]  Then the “grim corpse,” bleeding freely, held up the severed head and turned its face toward the gathered knights.  Its eyelids lifted open, and the head spoke, warning Sir Gawain to keep his promise.[3]

Head Cases:  Headless Saints and Their Post-Mortem Wanderings

Like the Green Knight and the Headless Horseman, whose severed head rested on the horseman’s saddle before he hurled it, dodgeball-like, at the hapless Ichabod Crane, the bodies of cephalophores remained animated even after the detachment of their heads.  They even performed with a remarkable degree of agency, often selecting the sites of their own burials.

Saint Denis, Patron Saint of Paris

St Denis - Sacre Coeur

Saint Denis, Basilique Sacré-Coeur, Paris, France. The Basilique Sacré-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart), located in Montmartre, is traditionally associated with Saint Denis’s beheading.  Photo by Reliquarian.

In The Golden Legend’s account of the death of Saint Denis, the saint collected his severed head and walked an appreciable distance with it after his beheading.  According to the story, after Saint Denis, also known as Saint Dionysius, had been beheaded by a sword, his body “[i]nstantly . . . stood up, took his head in its arms, and, with an angel and a heavenly light leading the way, marched two miles, from the place called Montmartre, the hill of martyrs, to the place where, by his own choice and by God’s providence, he rests in peace.”[4]  The abbey church of Saint-Denis was later erected on the spot where Saint Denis was buried.[5]  One of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, Saint Denis is often invoked for relief from headaches.

Saint Aphrodisius of Béziers

Another cephalophore, Saint Aphrodisius (or Saint Aphrodise) of Béziers, similarly retrieved and traveled with his severed head before settling on a final resting place.  Saint Aphrodisius, the first Bishop of Béziers, was decapitated on the site of the Roman circus at Béziers, and his head was unceremoniously tossed into a well.  Miraculously, the saint’s head was ejected from the well and rolled back to saint’s body.  The headless corpse then picked up the head and walked with it through the city to the site of the hermit cave where the saint had lived during his lifetime.[6]  The Basilica of Saint Aphrodisius of Béziers (Basilique Saint-Aphrodise de Béziers) was later erected on the spot where Saint Aphrodisius was buried.

Saint Nicasius of Rheims

Saint Nicasius - Munich

Joos van Cleve, Saints George and Nicasius with donors (detail of Saint Nicasius), oil on panel (c. 1515), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Here, Saint Nicasius is depicted with just the top of his head missing.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Saint Nicasius of Rheims, is commonly portrayed with either his entire head or just a portion of head missing.  According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Saint Nicasius was a 5th-century Bishop of Rheims who was killed by a marauding army of Gauls.  Standing in the doorway of his church, Saint Nicasius was massacred with his deacon, Saint Florentius, and his lector, Saint Jucundus, by his side.  The Gauls apparently cut his head off, although, as noted, he is often shown missing just the top of his head.

Other Cephalophores

Other cephalophores frequently represented with their severed heads include Saint Just, Saint Ginés de la Jara, Saint Firmin, Saint Minias, the siblings Saints Felix and Regula, Saint Exuperantius, Saint Valerie, Saints Maxien, Lucien, and Julian, Saint Chéron, and Saint Osyth.  Although Saint Paul of Tarsus was martyred by beheading, he is more frequently depicted with a book of letters, signifying the letters he wrote to the earliest Christian communities, or a sword, the instrument of his martyrdom.  The Golden Legend notes that at his execution, “[a]s soon as his head bounded from his body, it intoned, in Hebrew and in a clear voice, ‘Jesus Christ.’”[7]  Meanwhile, although not a cephalophore, Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne can easily be mistaken for one.  Saint Cuthbert commonly carries a severed head, although it is not his own.  It belongs to Saint Oswald, whose head was buried with Saint Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral.

Saint Firmin

Saint Firmin Holding His Head, limestone and paint (c. 1225-75), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by Reliquarian.

The Secret to Getting A Head

In his essay in Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, Scott Montgomery argues that stories describing the “post-mortem ambulation” of cephalophoric saints may have served a pragmatic purpose in certain communities.  He observes, “Cephalophores do not merely respond to their decapitation, but more actively direct the location of their resting place and subsequent veneration, establishing the locus sanctus of their cult.  Not surprisingly, it seems that the trope is commonly inserted into the saint’s tale by those claiming to possess [the saint’s] relics.”[8]  Montgomery observes that texts and images of cephalophory were frequently produced where the relics were kept, suggesting that such tales were effective at “establishing relic claims at the very location where the tale was inserted into the saint’s vita.”[9]

Double Halo!

Whatever the origin of the trope, artists entrusted to render the personalities of cephalophoric saints faced an uncommon challenge.  Saints in art were generally depicted with a halo or nimbus behind their heads, indicating their great dignity and sanctity.[10]  While many artists continued to follow this convention for cephalophores, the unusual placement of a cephalophore’s head, which artists often deposited in the headless saint’s hands, could visually diminish the effect of the golden, glowing halo.  Consequently, artists sometimes sought other ways to communicate the sanctity of cephalophores.

Saint Nicasius - Rouen Cathedral

Saint Nicasius, Rouen Cathedral, Rouen, France. Saint Nicasius is holding his bishop’s mitre and is missing the top of his head.  Photo by Reliquarian.

One approach involved placing the cephalophore’s halo around the saint’s neck, where the head had been.  Saint Denis is depicted this way on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, as is Saint Nicasius above the north portal of Rheims Cathedral.  Another approach involved rendering a cephalophore with two halos:  one above the saint’s decollated head and one around the saint’s neck, which was sometimes shown spurting blood.  Saint Denis is depicted this way in a manuscript illuminated by the Master of Sir John Fastolf and on the coat of arms of the city of Krefeld, Germany.

Léon Bonnat’s famous Le martyre de Saint-Denis at the Pantheon in Paris depicts a variation of the double halo concept.  In Bonnat’s painting, the headless bodies of Saint Denis’s companions, Saints Eleutherius and Rusticus, are strewn to Saint Denis’s left and right while a bloody ax rests on steps in the foreground.  To the upper right of the painting, an angel swoops from the sky bearing a palm frond and crown of martyrdom.  Meanwhile, at the center of the painting, Saint Denis’s headless body is shown scooping up its head like a fumbled football.  The disembodied head is surrounded by a distinct halo, but the space above Saint Denis’s neck, where his head would have been, is also aglow.  Not quite a halo, nimbus, aureole, or other traditional marker of saintliness, the glow appears as a riot of sparks reminiscent of a holiday sparkler.

Saint Nicasius

The Martrydrom of Saint Nicasius, stained glass (early 13th century), Basilique Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais de Soissons, Soisson, France. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Heady Times:  Cephalophores Unbound

Cephalophory is, perhaps, one of the most dramatic examples of a saint’s triumph over death.  As Montgomery explains, “much of the potency of the trope is fed by the phenomenon . . . that the martyr is only dispatched by beheading after enduring a series of horrific tortures.”[11]  Saint Denis, for example, was stretched on an iron grill over a blazing fire; thrown to hungry, wild beasts; stuffed into an oven; and nailed to a cross before he was finally beheaded.  Decapitation, then, was frequently resorted to as a means of “martyr-dispatching” because it was so effective and so definitive.[12]  Accordingly, “the act of post-decapatory ambulation (and occasionally locution) is underscored as all-the-more miraculous.  Cephalophores dramatically enact their imitatio Christi and imitatio sancti in ‘surviving’ bodily death, essentially following the model of St. Paul in professing faith after decollation.”[13]

[1]  1 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:  A Middle-English Arthurian Romance Retold in Modern Prose 15-16 (Jessie Laidlay Weston trans., 1900).

[2]  Id. at 16.

[3]  Id.

[4]  Jacobus de Voragine, 2 The Golden Legend:  Readings on the Saints 240 (William Granger Ryan trans., 1993).

[5]  4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 67-68 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).  Butler’s Lives of the Saints explains that the cultus of Saint Dionysius or Saint Denis was very strong in the Middle Ages and that by the 6th century he was already recognized as “the saint of Paris par excellence.”  Id. at 68.

[6]  See, e.g., Scott B. Montgomery, Securing the Sacred Head:  Cephalophory and Relic Claims, in Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture 92-93 (Catrien Santing et. al, eds., 2013).

[7]  Jacobus de Voragine, 1 The Golden Legend:  Readings on the Saints 353-54 (William Granger Ryan trans., 1993).

[8]  Montgomery, supra note 6, at 85.

[9]  Id. at 85-86.

[10]  George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 149 (1954).

[11]  Montgomery, supra note 6, at 86.

[12]  Id.

[13]  Id.