Saint Cecilia

From New World Encyclopedia
Saint Cecilia
St cecilia guido reni.jpg

Saint Cecilia by Guido Reni, 1606
Virgin and Martyr
Born second century C.E. in Rome
Died 176–180 or 222-235 C.E. in Sicily
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Churches
Eastern Catholic Churches
Anglican Communion
Canonized Pre-Congregation
Major shrine Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome
Feast November 22
Attributes crown, angel, flute, organ, roses, violin, harp, harpsichord, singing
Patronage Church music, great musicians, poets; Albi, France; Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska; Mar del Plata, Argentina
Controversy dates and details of her biography uncertain

Saint Cecilia (Latin: Sancta Caecilia) is the patron saint of musicians and Church music. Venerated in both East and West, she is one of the eight women commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.

Cecilia was a young noblewoman of Rome. A devout Christian, she had pledged herself to chastity. However, her parents arranged for her to marry the noble Valerian. At the wedding celebration, while the musicians and singers performed music of a secular nature, her thoughts were only of God. On her wedding night, rather than consummating the marriage, her husband also became a Christian and joined her in a commitment to a celibate union. He and his brother Tiburtius then suffered martyrdom as a result of their public charity as Christians. Cecilia, still a virgin, soon joined them in her own glorious but gruesome death. The dates of these martyrdoms are clouded, with scholars suggesting dates ranging from the late second through early fourth century C.E.

The church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere exists in Rome, traditionally believed to be built on the spot of her own home and martyrdom. Dating from about the fifth century, it was rebuilt with much splendor by Pope Paschal I around the year 820 and again in 1599.

Saint Cecilia's role as the patron saint of church music began in the fourteenth century and expanded rapidly. Always well represented in art, since the Renaissance, she is typically represented with the organ or other musical instrument as her attribute. Celebrated as a virgin martyr, her feast day is in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches on November 22.


Cecilia and her beloved angel

Like other famous saints of the early Christian church, Saint Cecilia's life is highly embellished by legend. According to her Acts, probably written in the fifth century, she was a virgin of a senatorial family and had been a Christian from her infancy. She adopted the asceticism that was popular among pious Christians of her time, wearing rough sackcloth next to her skin, fasting, and praying to the saints and angels to guard her virginity. When she came of age, however, she was given in marriage by her parents to a noble pagan youth named Valerian. Her Acts declare: "While the profane music of her wedding was heard, Cecilia was singing in her heart a hymn of love for Jesus, her true spouse."

After their wedding celebration, the couple retired to the bridal chamber, where Cecilia confided that she was loved by an angel who jealously guarded her body. She therefore warned Valerian that he must take care not to violate her virginity:

Cecelia and her husband Valerian crowned by the angel

"I have an angel that loves me, which ever keeps my body whether I sleep or wake, and if he may find that ye touch my body by villainy, or foul and polluted love, certainly he shall anon slay you, and so should ye lose the flower of your youth. And if so be that you love me in holy love and cleanness, he shall love thee as he loves me and shall show to thee his grace."

Valerian requested to see this angel for himself. Believing that he must first become a Christian, Cecilia sent him to the third milestone on the Via Appia, where he would meet Bishop Urban (the pope). Valerian obeyed and was baptized, returning to Cecilia as a Christian. Upon entering, he beheld Cecilia praying in her chamber. By her side was an angel with flaming wings, who crowned them both with roses and lilies, the symbols of both love and chastity. The two thus entered into a spiritual marriage without sex.

When Tiburtius, the brother of Valerian, came to them, he sensed a sweet presence. He, too, was won over to Christianity. As zealous devotees of the faith, both brothers distributed rich alms and buried the bodies of the martyrs who had died for Christ. However, the Roman prefect, Turcius Almachius, condemned the brothers to death, appointing his officer, Maximus, to execute the sentence. Maximus himself was converted, however, and suffered martyrdom with the two brothers. Their remains were buried in one tomb by Cecilia.

Cecilia was now sought by the officers of the prefect. After gloriously professing her faith, she was condemned to be suffocated in the bath of her own house. However, she remained miraculously unharmed in the overheated and oxygenless room, and the prefect ordered that she be decapitated instead. The executioner struck her neck three times with his sword without severing her head. Greatly frightened, he fled, leaving the virgin bathed in her own blood. She lived three days, made dispositions of her wealth in favor of the poor, and provided that after her death her house should be dedicated as a church. The pope then buried her among the other bishops of Rome and the confessors, in the Catacomb of Callistus.

The historical Cecilia

Statue of Saint Cecilia with bloodied cloth by her neck in the Cathedral Saint-Cecilia in Albi
Mosaic of Saint Cecilia at Montserrat

One of the most venerated martyrs of Christian antiquity, Saint Cecilia's feast was celebrated in the Roman church already in the fourth century. However, there is substantial confusion regarding her dates, as both herself and her associates seem to be confused with other martyrs of the same names.

The early medieval guides to the burial places of Roman martyrs point out her grave on the Via Appia, next to the crypt of the Roman bishops (popes) of the third century. The nineteenth-century Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi located her grave in the Catacomb of Callistus, in a crypt immediately adjoining that of the popes, where an empty niche in one of the walls may have at one time held her sarcophagus. Among the nearby frescoes of a later time, the figure of a richly-dressed woman appears twice. Pope Urban I, who was associated with the saint by the Acts of her martyrdom, is depicted once.

The ancient titular church of Rome in the Trastevere was certainly dedicated by the fifth century to Cecilia. Like some other ancient Christian churches of Rome, which are the gifts of the wealthy saints whose names they bear, her Acts state that the property was donated by Cecilia herself before her martyrdom. However, according to De Rossi's researches, the property belonged most likely to the family of Cecilia and passed into the possession of the Roman church through a later donation.

The Acts of the martyrdom of St. Cecilia, from which her biography is taken, originated about the middle of the fifth century and still exist in numerous ancient manuscripts. These Acts were also translated from Latin into Greek and were used in the prefaces of the above-mentioned masses. Unfortunately, in its current form, the story has little historical value, as even sources such as the Catholic Encyclopedia admit. It is a Christian romance, many others compiled in the fifth and sixth century, replete with miracle stories and the glorification of spiritual marriage.

Ancient woman in prayer depicted in the walls of the Catacomb of Callistus

The existence of the martyrs themselves, however, is accepted as historical fact, and the relation between Cecilia, Valerian, Tiburtius, and Maximus probably has some historical foundation. The three saints were indeed buried on the Via Appia, but their relationships to each other cannot be historically confirmed. Moreover, the time when Cecilia suffered martyrdom is not known. The mention of "Pope Urban" in the Acts cannot be relied on for dating the events, as it is likely that the author of the Acts simply introduced the martyr of this name into the story, on account of the nearness of his tomb to those of the other martyrs. Complicating the matter even more is the fact that the author of the Liber Pontificalis used the Acts for his information on Pope Urban, whose association with Cecilia is considered doubtful by today's scholars. The Acts offer no other indication of the time of the martyrdoms.

Some medieval sources place the death of the saint in the reign of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (about 177 C.E.), but others place it during the persecution of Diocletian c. 300. Modern scholars have suggested the time of Alexander Severus (229-230), Decius (249-250), and even Julian the Apostate (362). The surest time indication is the position of the tomb of the martyrs in the Catacomb of Callistus, in the immediate proximity of the ancient crypt of the early popes. The earliest part of this catacomb dates from the end of the second century. From that time to the middle of the third century is the period left open for the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia.

Later cult and legacy

The crypt of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome

In the Sacramentarium Leoniam, a collection of masses completed about the end of the fifth century, no less than five different masses are found in honor of Cecilia. Her church in the Trastevere quarter of Rome was rebuilt by Pope Paschal I (817-824). The pope wished to transfer her relics to this location, but at first he could not locate them and believed that they had been stolen by the Lombards. In a vision, he saw Cecilia, who exhorted him to continue his search. Soon the body of the martyr, draped in costly material of gold brocade and with cloths soaked in her blood at her feet, was found in the Catacomb of Prætextatus. They were thought to have been transported there from the Catacomb of Callistus to save them from earlier depredations of the Lombards in the vicinity of Rome.

Saint Cecilia from the Nuremburg Chronicles

The relics of Saint Cecilia—together with those of Valerianus, Tiburtius, and Maximus, as well as those of Popes Urban and Lucius—were then reburied under the high altar of Cecilia's church in Trastevere. From this time on, the veneration of Saint Cecilia continued to spread, and numerous churches were dedicated to her.

During the restoration of the Trastevere church in the year 1599, Cardinal Sfondrato had the high altar examined and found under it the sarcophagi, with the relics of the saints. Twentieth-century excavations beneath the church disclosed the remains of Roman buildings. A richly adorned underground chapel was found beneath the middle aisle, and in it a latticed window, opening over the altar, allowing a view of the receptacles in which the bones of the saints were laid. In a side chapel of the church can be seen the remains of the bath in which, according to the Acts, Cecilia was put to death.

The oldest representations of Saint Cecilia show her in the attitude usual for martyrs in the Christian art of the earlier centuries: either with the crown of martyrdom or in the attitude of prayer. Medieval pictures of the saint are very frequent.

Patroness of church musicians

Saint Celia by Matteo Rosselli, 1615–1620

Since the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Cecilia is represented as playing the organ, evidently to express the idea that while musicians played at her wedding, she sang in her heart to God alone. When the Academy of Music was founded at Rome (1584) she was made patroness of the institute, whereupon her veneration as patroness of church music became more universal. The organ is now her most usual attribute.

Saint Cecilia by Raphael

By the second half of the sixteenth century, substantial festivals and musical celebrations in her honor began to be recorded in northern Europe, the earliest of them in Normandy. A century later, this fashion crossed the channel to England with the festivities of 1683 attracting three celebratory odes in her honor, all set to music by Henry Purcell.

Other music dedicated to Cecilia includes Benjamin Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia, based on a text by W. H. Auden; A Hymn for St. Cecilia by Herbert Howells; a mass by Alessandro Scarlatti; Charles Gounod's Messe Solennelle de Sainte Cécile; Hail, bright Cecilia! by Henry Purcell; and an opera, Cecilia, by Licinio Refice, SJ (1934).

Sankta Cecilia is the title of a 1984 Swedish hit song sung by Lotta Pedersen and Göran Folkestad at the Swedish Melodifestivalen 1984. The American pop-rock band Jars of Clay opened their 2007 Christmas Songs album with an instrumental track titled "The Gift of St. Cecelia."

Other art and literature

Innumerable paintings and stained glass windows depict Cecilia at the organ, as well as playing the violin or cello, instruments she could not have personally known. She is represented in works by Raphael, Rubens, Domenichino, Artemisia Gentileschi, among many others.

The martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, by Carlo Maderna

In another magnificent masterpiece, the marble statute beneath the high altar of the above-mentioned church of St. Cecilia at Rome, Carlo Maderna represented her lying prostrate, just as she had received the death-blow from the executioner's hand.

In literature, she is commemorated especially by Chaucer's Seconde Nonnes Tale and by John Dryden's famous ode, set to music by Handel in 1736, and later by Sir Hubert Parry (1889). Cecilia was also featured on the reverse of the £20 note in the United Kingdom, from 1999 to 2007, together with composer Sir Edward Elgar. Her feast is celebrated in the Latin and the Greek Church on November 22.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Armstrong, Carole. Lives and Legends of the Saints: With Paintings from the Great Art Museums of the World. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1995. ISBN 9780689802775
  • Connolly, Thomas. Mourning into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. ISBN 9780300059014
  • Greene, Genard. Song in Her Heart; A Story of St. Cecilia. Dujarie Press, 1951. (Juvenile audience) OCLC 9765981
  • Heath-Stubbs, John Francis Alexander. Saint Cecilia. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng: Penguin Books, 1943. OCLC 40100815
  • Refice, Licinio, Emidio Mucci, Randolph Mickelson, and Joel Honig. Cecilia. [New York, NY]: Sacred Music Society of America, 1976. OCLC 8495388

This article incorporates text from the Catholic Encyclopedia, a publication in the public domain.


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