Sunday, July 24, 2011

Proper Care for Your Headless Saint

I like specific words. No, scratch that. I like words that exist despite the fact that most sane people would never have good reason to use them. On that note, may I present the word of the week?
cephalophore (SEF-uh-LOH-four) — noun: 1. a saint who is generally depicted carrying his or her own head. 2. a cephalostat designed to take in-sequence-oriented facial photographs and gnathostatic models.
Guess which definition I think is more interesting?

modified detail from the dore inferno illustrations / not a saint but you get the point

I’ll be honest: I’m not even sure what that second definition means. Yes, I’m going Catholic for this one and reveling in the bizarre violence that typifies tales of martyrdom. Really, the saints were a great P.R. move for the Catholic Church in that they draw in kids for the same reason that lurid crime comics, Greek myths and the young adult horror fiction books do: violence, the occasional action sequence and sometimes even some paranormal shenanigans. This post has all of these.

Lest you think that cephalophore is just an art term used to describe the way statues or paintings indicate that a saint was decapitated, know that it also describes people who people supposedly trotted around, head in hand, fueled by Jesus power — or devil magic, in the case of non-Jesus-affiliated cephalophores such as the Headless Horseman or the Green Knight. According to Wikipedia, the most famous Christian cephalophore is probably Denis, the patron saint of Paris, who allegedly walked six miles after his beheading to the summit of the tallest hill in the city, Montmartre.

note how the artist circumvented the halo problem
There, Denis’s head delivered a sermon, despite the considerable handicap of having had its vocal chords severed, before Denis’s body finally dropped dead. I presume finally dying resulted in the body dropping the head. It’s possible it rolled down Montmartre before someone caught it. (“Someone grab that head, otherwise it will be difficult to prove this implausible story!”)

Other, less famous saints are allegedly also cephalophores, but it’s a truly C-list group. St. Gemolo, anyone? St. Juthwara? St. Emygdius? St. Valerie of Limoges? No, of course not. No one is looking to these guys for confirmation names.

The word cephalophore comes from the Greek kephale, meaning “head,” and a form of the verb pherein, “to carry,” which you also see in words like transfer and refer as well as names like Christopher, “Christ bearer,” and Lucifer, “light bearer.” But I’m more interested in the artistic implications of the cephalophore. See, the trouble with depicting saints carrying their own heads, as opposed to regular godless people doing the same, is that it forces the artist to make a choice: Do I put the halo on the head as it rests in the hands? Or do I put it above the neck stump, where it would have been had the head not been lopped off? It’s a choice that makes you really consider the physics of halos — or at least makes you think like a serial killer posing his victims in some kind of grim tableau. Or you know what? It can be both. Why shouldn’t it?

st. denis at notre dame / halo placed, you know, wherever

More mutilation made holy: the horrible story of St. Agatha and her “bells on a plate,” which, it turns out, totally aren’t bells and oh god the depravity of it all.

Previous words of the week after the jump.
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