Saint Denis came from Lyon’s Christian community and was sent to Paris to found the Church there in the 3rd century. He would become its first bishop.
In the year 257, he was decapitated in Montmartre with his companions after they were discovered by a Roman governor. He then got up, walked six kilometres with his head in his hands, and gave his head to a Christian woman before collapsing on the ground. It is on this site that the Basilique de Saint-Denis was built in honour of the bishop.
His martyrdom is evoked in several different places at Notre-Dame de Paris: - (1) on the Portal of the Virgin, to the left of the façade, Saint Denis is surrounded by two angels, and can be recognised since he’s holding his head in his hands. At his feet, there is a man holding an axe, and a panel representing the executioner’s crime; - (2) Saint Denis is once again represented on the South Portal, dedicated to Saint Stephen, a deacon who was the first Christian martyr: here he holds the top of his skull, not his entire head, and is accompanied by two other martyrs, the priest Eleuterus and the deacon Rustique; - (3) on the South Rose Window, he is represented in a medallion, holding his head on his knees; his martyrdom is also depicted on a wooden panel in the choir stalls; - (4) he is portrayed in a statue in the North transept by Nicolas Coustou. in the large choir windows, he is represented amidst the bishops of Paris; - Cardinal Lustiger wanted them to be portrayed in the contemporary manner, above the sanctuary ambo, by the artist Jean Touret.