I learned a new word last week: cephalophore. Actually, it is an old word, so it is more accurate to say I learned a word that other people learned long ago. An old word was new to me.
The word came up in a gathering of serious practicing Catholics. As a convert, I thought I had a good excuse not to know the word. Some of those present were cradle Catholics; they had less of an excuse.
But I’m straying from my point of discussing the word, cephalophore. It is an art form that depicts a saint carrying his (or her) own head. The idea is that a saint can be decapitated and still have the presence of mind (albeit at arm’s length) to hold the severed head and, perhaps, express some holy sentiment. Tradition has it that St. Paul spoke the name of Jesus after being decapitated.
Around 120 saints are so depicted in art. The more famous include St. Paul, St. Dennis and St. Aphrodisius. Of course, the Bible recounts some beheadings, St. John the Baptist likely being the best known. John didn’t get to hold his head, it being placed on a platter to please the whims of a dancing girl and her lecherous king.
Beheadings also show up in the news these days. Muslim terrorist groups like ISIS like cutting off heads. (This is where I add the standard disclaimer that not all Muslims are terrorists, nor do any but a pathetic few remove the heads of their enemies.)
As you might imagine, the history of beheadings is long and disquieting. I did a little research and learned that execution by beheading seems to be a part of nearly every culture in every part of the world. Executioners see it as a fast and effective way to kill – and certain to be useful as a behavior modification tool.
Some cultures used beheading as a more humane option to other methods such as burning at the stake, boiling in oil or hanging by the neck. St. Paul was a Roman citizen and thus given the “humane” beheading rather than the alternative: crucifixion.
The French use of the Guillotine during in the wake of their revolution would seem to make them the beheading all stars. During those terrifying times, the French removed the heads of a great many people, some of them quite famous: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Maximilien Robespierre.
But I’m not willing to crown the French the best at beheading; the English started the practice early and did it often. Losing a battle, failing to gain a crown or refusing to agree with a king brought many a noble Englishman (or woman) to the chopping block: Sir Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn, Jane Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell, Sir William Wallace (AKA Braveheart).
In cinema and literature characters occasionally lose their heads. For example, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow gives us the headless horseman. The rider was hardly a saint, but the United States produced a postage stamp in his honor.
Saints seldom show up on stamps, certainly not without their heads. And it might seem rather obscure (random, as my daughter would say), but the way the world is going, the cephalophore could make a comeback as an art form.
Christians are persecuted around the world; thousands are killed for their faith each year. And, yes, many are beheaded. I don’t know if any are able to literally utter words after the horrid act. But their conviction and courage speaks louder than words to my heart.