Monday, November 21, 2011

"Hail Bright Cecilia!" -- Great Patroness of Harmony

Carlo Saraceni, St. Cecilia and the Angel
Italian, ca. 1610
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica
Although we have few concrete details about her life and martyrdom, Cecilia of Rome has been one of the most popular saints of the Church in all the centuries since the 4th. The date of her martyrdom is uncertain. It may be as early as the time of Marcus Aurelius in the mid-2nd century or as late as the time of Diocletian in the early 4th, only about 10 years before the Edict of Milan gave recognition to the Christian Church.

What we do know is that, as early as the years immediately after the Edict of Milan, she was one of the most respected of the Roman martyrs. What was probably her home was one of the early Roman “house churches”, called tituli. And, by the 5th century her name is among the list of martyrs cited in the Roman Canon, the principal Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, along with other male and female saints, such as Lawrence, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Agnes, Anastasia, Felicity and Perpetua. 1

Her name, Cecilia, derives (as the names of Roman women always did) from her family name, in this case the Caecilii (for a male family member the form would be Caecilius, which survives in the English given name, Cecil). Presumably, St. Cecilia was a member of this prominent, noble, old Roman family. She undoubtedly also had another, personal name, which is now lost.

Legends surround her life and death, although it is entirely possible that some of them may, in fact, be true. We simply don’t have the documentation to know for sure. The best-known tale is that as a young bride, vowed to perpetual virginity, she converted both her husband and brother-in-law, themselves prominent Romans, to the Christian faith and that, for this reason, both they and she suffered martyrdom. By tradition the first attempt at killing her was to suffocate her in a hot bath. I had always thought this was a weird way to kill someone until I learned that the Empress Fausta, Constantine’s second wife, was reported to have been killed by this technique. Perhaps it was a Roman way to execute high born women. However, while it may have succeeded with Fausta, in Cecilia’s case it failed. Instead, she was killed by a more conventional manner, by beheading.

Carlo Saraceni, Execution of St. Cecilia
Italian, ca. 1610
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The chosen executioner must have been incompetent because, according to tradition, he hacked at her neck three times, wounding her, but leaving her still alive. Such an incomplete beheading might well have left her alive and conscious, though probably at least partly paralyzed, for some time. According to the story, she lived for three days, giving her enough time to make gifts to the poor of Rome and to donate her residence to the Church. It is certainly possible that this event may actually have happened, although the three days may be more a reference to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ than to a real time span. However, a slow death lasting from several hours to one or two days could be reasonable. Legend has it that she also sang hymns during this time, which, while remotely possible, is unlikely. 2

Her body was buried in a place of honor in the catacomb of St. Callistus. In the 4th century a church was constructed above what probably had been her home, the titulus Caeciliae, now known as Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Remains of the original Roman buildings have been found under the church foundations and can be visited. 
Facade, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
Italian, 5th through 19th centuries
Rome, Piazza Santa Cecilia

In the 9th century, coinciding with the renovation of the church, her body was removed from the catacomb and placed in the church.

The church has been renovated several times, most recently in the 19th century.

Stefano Maderno, St. Cecilia
Italian, 1600
Rome, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

In connection with one of these renovations, in 1599, her remains were examined and found to be intact. The sculptor Stefano Maderno was commissioned to carve a statue recording how it looked. He engraved a marble plaque testifying that he had reproduced exactly what he had seen. In translation it reads:
"Behold the body of the most holy virgin Cecilia, whom I myself saw lying incorrupt in the tomb. I have in this marble expressed for you the same saint in the very same posture".

Maderno’s white marble figure lies in front of the main altar of the church (which is crowned with a beautiful baldachino by Arnolfo da Cambio, which dates to around 1290). It gives dramatic testimony to Cecilia’s death. She lies, face down, on her right side. Her hair is thrown forward, revealing the deep cuts in her neck. Her fingers have been arranged to deliver a message. Three fingers of her right hand are extended, as is one finger of her left. She is signaling belief in the mystery of the Trinity, of the Three in One.
Stefano Maderno, St. Cecilia (detail)

This elegant and moving white sculpture is strikingly set into a stone framework that is a brilliant blue, like lapis lazuli, with gilded decorations of angels and the figures of other, related, saints. It stands at the beginning of the Baroque period, with its emphasis on presenting the reality of the suffering of the martyrs. 3

Stefano Maderno, St. Cecilia
Rome, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

However, it is her association with singing and, by extension with all music, for which she is chiefly remembered. It has made her the patron saint of music and musicians and one of the best known subjects in the history of art.

Numerous paintings honor her, depicting her with a variety of instruments.  But, unlike Maderno’s simply clad figure, most of these turn her into a fantasy figure. She appears in various headgear and dress, often very elaborate and exotic. Occasionally her husband and fellow martyr, Valerianus, and his brother, Tiburtius, also martyred, appear with her.  An angel or angels may be in attendance as well. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, St. Cecilia
Italian, ca. 1616
Rome, Galleria Spada
Guido Reni, St. Cecilia
Italian, 1606
Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum

Domenichino, St. Cecilia
Italian, 1617-1619
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Jacques Blanchard, St. Cecilia
French, 1630s
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum

Nicolas Poussin, St. Cecilia
French, c.1635
Madrid, Museo del Prado
Edward Burne-Jones, St. Cecilia
English, 1890s
Private Collection

Orazio Gentileschi, Sts. Cecilia, Valerianus and Tiburtius
Italian, ca. 1620
Milan, Brera Gallery

In addition, she has been honored in many musical compositions, such as the 1692 “Ode to St. Cecilia” by Henry Purcell (closing chorus below). Her name appears in the names of not only churches, but in the Academia di S. Cecilia in Rome, organized in 1585 as a musicians guild, as well as in numerous contemporary choral groups, orchestras, concert series. She is commemorated on November 22nd.

Hail! Bright Cecilia, Hail to thee!
Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!
Who, whilst among the Choir above
Thou dost thy former Skill improve,
With Rapture of Delight dost see
Thy Favourite Art
Make up a Part
Of infinite Felicity.
Hail! Bright Cecilia, Hail to thee!
Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!
1. Kirsch, Johann Peter. "St. Cecilia." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.

2. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.)

3. Wittkower, Rudolf. Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600 to 1750, Pelican History of Art, Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1965, p. 84.

© M. Duffy, 2011

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