The image above shows Bishop Nicasius of Rhiems. It is from an illuminated initial in a Book of Hours (B.11.22). The bishop is depicted holding his mitred head in his hands. Nicasius is one of a group of saints known as ‘cephalophores’ from the Greek word for ‘head carrier’. The term was first used in 1914 in an article by Marcel Hébert and it is applied to beheaded martyrs and saints who, after decapitation, carried or held their head in their heads often while continuing to move, speak or preach.
We have looked through the Trinity’s collection for other cephalores. The best known is St Denys, a patron saint of France. After his death, he carried his head away from the place of his decapitation at Montmartre. His head continued to preach as he walked. He was buried some distance away and a chapel and later a cathedral was built on the site of his burial. The area of Paris known as St Denis grew up around the cathedral.
The story of St Denys was told in the popular medieval text Legenda aurea (Golden Legend) by Jacob de Voragine. The Library has three manuscript copies – O.8.20, B.15.1 and B.15.15. The legend also features in the Library’s early-15th century copy of the South English Legendary (R.3.25).
The Legendary, of which around 60 manuscript copies survive, contains a collection of the lives of saints told in rhyming couplets. The Legendary probably originated in the west of England at the end of the 13th century, around the same time that the Legenda aurea was being compiled. Denys’ story is told on folios 87v-89r.
St Paul is another cephalore whose story was also told in the Legenda aurea. An early printed edition of the Golden Legend was made by Caxton in 1483 and then copied by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498 (VI.18.8). St Paul’s decapitation is described as follows:
“[St Paul ] stretched forth his neck, and so was beheaded, and as soon as the head was from the body, it said: Jesus Christus! which had been to Jesus or Christus, or both, fifty times.”
His head was later rejoined to his body.
The Golden Legend was also printed by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1892 (C.16.82-4). The page below describes the martyrdom of St Nicasius.
There are over 100 cephalophore saints including St Osyth of Essex, St Juthwara who was martyred at Halstock in Dorset and St Justinian of Ramsey Island in Wales. Speaking severed heads also occur in medieval literature including Gawain and the Green Knight and Dante’s Divine Comedy.