23 Mar 2012

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered (14): Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre, Paris

The church of Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre is one of the oldest churches in Paris. It was consecrated by Pope Eugenius III in 1147, in a splendid royal ceremony, where Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abbot of Cluny acted as acolytes. It was constructed on the site of a seventh century Merovingian church using four black marble columns from that church. These were placed two against the west wall, one at the apse entrance and one in the north aisle.

These marble columns possibly came from the pagan temple that once occupied the site. This was a temple of the Roman god Mercury. As Mercury is often associated with the Celtic god Lugus, it seems likely that the site was originally sacred to Lugus, who was probably then Romanized following the Roman conquest in the 1st century BC.

Montmartre is also the site of the martyrdom of St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, who is believed to been killed around 250 AD.

In the 9th century, the Abbot Hilduin wrote the following account of his death:

"The hour of judgment had come; the thugs threw themselves on them, beating them cruelly with sticks and dragging them through the roads to the Hill of Mercury, where, after the most horrible abuse, the missionaries had their heads chopped off with an ax blow. In an astonishing miracle the body of Saint Denis was seen to rise up and to gather up his head in his own hands as if he were still alive, raising it up triumphantly and carrying it for a distance of about two Gallic miles to the place where it presently reposes where the abbey of Saint-Denis is located. At the sight of this miracle the heathen, terrified, took flight. But the Christians, in awe, blessed this manifestation of divine power. There resulted the conversion of a host of the unfaithful."

It seems that even in the third century the pagans of Gaul felt threatened by the encroachments of the Christians, and held intensely antagonistic feelings towards them. I wonder why.

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