Second Century or Third Century
Feast Day: November 22
Patron of: musicians, musical instrument makers, music, poets, singers, Rome Academy of Music
Symbols: lute, organ, roses, martyrs palms
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
from “Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day” by W. H. Auden
As an inspirational subject she has inspired masterpieces in every artistic discipline, and the popularity of her cult spans from ancient to modern times. Yet, little is known about Cecilia besides the fact that she was a rich young Roman girl martyred in her home in Trastevere.
Cecilia came from the senatorial family Coecilia, a family prominent in Rome’s ancient history. Her mother raised her as a Christian and she secretly took a vow of chastity. Her father, not taking his daughter’s faith seriously, arranged a marriage for her to a nobleman named Valerian. As musicians played for the guests, Cecilia begged God to help her keep her vow.
On their wedding night, Cecilia told Valerian, now her husband, that she had a guardian angel with her that only she could see and warned him that the angel would be upset if she were touched in an impure way. When he asked to see the angel she directed him to go out and be baptized. Valerian did as she asked and on his return he found Cecilia praying in her room next to an angel with flaming wings . In his hands the angel held two wreathes made of roses and lilies. After crowning the couple, the angel vanished.
When Valerian’s brother Tibertius entered, he was astounded at the rare beauty and fragrance of the flowers and after he was told the story of Cecilia and her guardian, he too was baptized. Valerian and Tibertius then became active in the Christian community, making lavish gifts to the poor and burying martyrs slain for their faith. These actions came to the attention of the Roman Prefect who demanded that they sacrifice to the gods to prove their patriotism. When they refused, they were executed. Cecilia then had them buried together in the same tomb owned by her family.
Since Christianity was illegal, Cecilia was put on trial and condemned to death for not renouncing her faith.Coming from an illustrious family, Cecilia could not be executed in public. She was shut up in her sudarium, the steam room of her bath house. The vents were sealed and the furnaces were heated seven times higher than their normal limit in order to suffocate her. Cecilia was discovered the next day, happily praying, seemingly untouched by the hellish atmosphere of the room.
An executioner was dispatched to decapitate her. Hitting her three times with an axe, he was unable to kill her. Because Roman law decreed that three blows with the axe was the legal limit an executioner could use to kill a prisoner, Cecilia was left to bleed to death on the floor of her home. Crowds flocked to visit her as she prayed. She disbursed her worldly goods to the poor and she left her house to the Pope to be used as a church. When she finally died, three days later, she was buried in the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus.
This story was recorded hundreds of years after her death, in the Fifth Century ‘Acts of Cecilia’ which detailed her suffering and served as an inspiration for early Christians. At that time, her home was one of the first churches in Rome and Cecilia was so well regarded that her feast day was widely celebrated and there were five different masses in her honor.
In 821 Pope Paschal decided to repair the crumbling ruin of her church. Wanting to have a relic of the saint’s, he searched the catacombs. He could not find them, believing that they might have been looted by the Lombards. In a dream Cecilia encouraged him to continue his search, that in actuality, he had been very near her body. In the neighboring catacomb of Pratextarus, it was discovered that many bodies of the original martyrs had been moved to prevent thievery. One, perfectly preserved young woman, wrapped in gold, with bloody rags at her feet, was thought to be Cecilia. Among other martyrs with her were Valerianus and Tiburtius. These relics along with those of the ancient popes Urbanus and Lucius were installed in the altar of the Church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere.
During the early Renaissance when many ancient texts were being translated, the lines in her Acts that read, “Cantantibus organis illa in corde suo soi domino decantabat”, (“While musicians played at her nuptials, she sang only in her heart to God.”) were misconstrued to say that Cecilia herself played the organ at her own wedding. From this grew the legend that she not only could play every single musical instrument, but Cecilia even invented the organ. When an early 16th Century Florentine Musical Academy named Cecilia as their patron saint, other musical organizations followed suit, including the Academy of Music in Rome. This is the beginning of Cecilia’s patronage of music and poetry. From the Renaissance on, all visual depictions of Cecilia feature musical instruments. In England it became a tradition to celebrate Saint Cecilia’s Day with musical concerts and many great composers have written compositions in her honor.
It was in the spirit of this newfound respect for the Arts brought on by the Renaissance that a renovation of Saint Cecilia’s in Trastevere was undertaken in 1599. When the relics of Cecilia and the other martyrs were found beneath the altar, it became a major event in the cultural world. One of the official witnesses to the uncovering of the relics was the sculptor Stefano Maderno. According to those who were there, Cecilia was still incorrupt and his work , which resides in the church, is an uncanny physical likeness of the saint. Though this was almost 1500 years after her death, the streets of Rome were thronged with thousands who came to honor her. On November 22, 1599 the Pope came to her basilica to celebrate a Solemn High Mass accompanied by 42 Cardinals. Cecilia’s remains were then re-interred beneath the high altar..
Though the story of Cecilia has always been considered a pious legend, future restorations of her church in Trastevere unearthed the bathroom in a private Roman home from ancient times complete with a boiler and lead pipes two levels underneath the building, presenting the feasibility that there might be more truth in the story of her life than was first considered possible. What cannot be denied is that Cecilia had captured the public imagination, becoming a popular subject for painters such as Raphael, Delaroche and Poussin. Handel, Gounod, Scarlatti and Benjamin Britten are just a few of the composers who have written musical celebrations of her while poets from Chaucer to Auden have written odes to her. Today, it is customary for musicians to invoke her aid for a good performance.
In art Cecilia is represented holding or playing a musical instrument. Sometimes she is surrounded by angels. Martyrs palms, lilies for purity and roses for the wreath she and her husband were given by the angel on their wedding night.
Musician’s Prayer to Saint Cecilia
Heroic martyr who stayed faithful to Jesus your divine bridegroom,
Give us faith to rise above our persecutors and to see in them the
Image of our Lord.
We know that you were a musician and we are told that you
Heard angels sing.
Inspire musicians to gladden the hearts of people by filling the air
With God’s gift of music and reminding them of the Divine Musician
Who created all beauty.
Excerpted from the book: “Saints: Ancient and Modern” by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua