Monday, November 21, 2011

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

Carlo Saraceni, Saint Cecilia and the Angel
Italian, ca. 1610
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica

"Saint Cecilia kept the Gospel of Christ ever near her heart; day and night she never ceased praying and speaking with God."

Antiphon for Evening Prayer on the Feast of Saint Cecilia

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

Carlo Saraceni, Execution of Saint Cecilia
Italian, ca. 1610
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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, Saint 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.

Master of the Pesaro Crucifix, Saint Cecilia of Rome and Her Husband, Valerian, Being Crowned by an Angel
Italian, c. 1375-1380
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

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, beheading.

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

Luc Olivier Merson, The Dying Saint Cecilia Distributing Her Wealth to the Poor of Rome
Design for a Window
French, 1886
Paris, Musée d'Orsay

Her body was buried in a place of honor in the catacomb of St. Callistus.

Luis de Madrazo y Kuntz, Burial of Saint Cecilia in the Catacomb of Saint Callistus
Spanish, 1852
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

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.

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".

Stefano Maderno, Tomb of Saint Cecilia
Italian, 1600
Rome, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

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, Saint Cecilia (detail)

This elegant and moving white sculpture is strikingly set into a stone framework of brilliant blue 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.

Her connection to music is very old.  However, many early pictures depicted the scenes of her life, without any reference to music.

Master of Saint Cecilia, Saint Cecilia Altarpiece
Italian, c. 1304
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
The smaller pictures on the sides depict the life of Saint Cecilia and her first martyrdom (execution by hot bath).  There are no references to music.

A series of pictures in the fifteenth century depict her with a bird, probably reflecting that by this time she was associated with singing.
Masters of  Zweder van Culenborg, Saint Cecilia with a Bird
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1430-1435
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 79 K 2, fol. 264v

Master of Catherine of Cleves, Saints Agnes of Rome and Cecilia of Rome
From a Prayer Book
Dutch (Utrecht), 1438
The Hague, Museum Meermano
MS RMMW 10 E 1, fol. 89v

Attributed to the Painter of the Brunswick Diptych, Saint Cecilia
Dutch, c. 1490-1500
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Saints Agnes of Rome and Cecilia of Rome
From a Prayer Book
Flemish (Malines), c. 1500-1510
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 71 G 53, fol. 96v

Cornelis Engebrechtszoon, Saint Cecilia and Her Fiance
Dutch, c. 1518-1520
Budapest, Szépmûvészeti Múzeum

However, by the sixteenth century, the principle attribute of Saint Cecilia is a musical instrument.  Organs have prime place, first as small portative organs and later, as the organ developed, case instruments.  But, unlike Maderno’s simply clad figure, or the simple image of the early pictures, most of these turn her into a fantasy figure. She appears in various headgear and dress, often very elaborate and exotic

Master of the Saint Bartholemew Altar, Saints Agnes, Bartholomew and Cecilia
German, c. 1500-1505
Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Raphael. Saint Cecilia Altarpiece
Italian, 1514
Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale

Saint Cecilia
Flemish, c. 1550-1560
Antwerp, Museum Mayer van den Bergh

Jacopo Vignali, Saint Cecilia
Italian, 1562
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland
Here what appear to be two ladies of Cecilia's own class, turn out, on second look, to be two angels.

Michiel Coxie, Saint Cecilia
Flemish,  1569
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Antiveduto della Grammatica, Saint Cecilia
Italian, After 1611
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Lanfranco, Saint Cecilia and an Angel
Italian, c. 1617-1618 and c. 1621-1627
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Guercino, Saint Cecilia
Italian, c. 1620-1640
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Guillaume Perrier, Saint Cecilia with an Angel
French, c. 1630-1640
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Pietro da Cortona, Saint Cecilia
Italian, c. 1620-1626
London, National Gallery

Jacques Stella, Saint Cecilia
French, 1626
Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Nicolas Poussin, Saint Cecilia
French, c. 1635
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Peter Paul Rubens, Saint Cecilia
Flemish, c. 1639-1640
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Jacques Blanchard, Saint Cecilia
French, 1630s
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum

Jacques Stella, Saint Cecilia Playing the Organ
French, c. 1640
Paris, Musédu Louvre

Arnould de Vuez, Saint Cecilia
Flemish, c. 1700-1720
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts

Paul Delaroche, Saint Cecilia and the Angels
French, 1836
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Edward Burne-Jones, Saint Cecilia
English, 1890s
Private Collection

John Melhuish Strudwick, Saint Cecilia
English, 1896
Liverpool (UK), Sudley House

Numerous other paintings also honor her, depicting her with a variety of instruments.  .Here too she appears as an exotic. An angel or angels may be in attendance as well.

Guido Reni, Saint Cecilia
Italian, 1606
Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum

Artemisia Gentileschi, Saint Cecilia
Italian, ca. 1616
Rome, Galleria Spada

Domenichino, Saint Cecilia with an Angel Holding a Musical Score
Italian, c. 1617-1618
Paris, Musée de Louvre

Bernardo Cavallino, Saint Cecilia
Italian, c. 1645
Boston, Musseum of Fine Arts

Francesco Solimena, Saint Cecilia
Italian, c. 1740
Pommersfelden (DE), Schloss Weissenstein

Luigi Vanvitelli, Saint Cecilia
Italian, c. 1750
Bradford (UK), Cartwright Hall Art Gallery

Occasionally scenes from her life, especially of her martyrdom were depicted.  Sometimes her husband and fellow martyr, Valerianus, and his brother, Tiburtius, also martyred, appear with her.
Domenichino, Saint Cecilia Before the Judge Refuses to Sacrifice to Idols
Italian, c. 1612-1615
Rome, San Luigi dei Francesi, Cappella Polet

Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia
From a Book of Hours
Spanish, 17th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10565, fol. 92v

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

Claude Michel, known as Clodion, Death of Saint Cecilia
French, c. 1776-1777
Rouen, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Chapel of Saint Nicolas

Johann Evangelist Scheffer von Leonharshoff, Death of Saint Cecilia
Austrian, 1820-1822
Vienna, Belvedere Museum

Etienne Gautier, Dead Saint Cecilia
French, c. 1878
Paris, Musée d'Orsay

Francesco Francia, Burial of Saint Cecilia
Italian, c. 1504-1506
Bologna, Church of San Giacomo Maggiore, Oratory of Saint Cecilia,

In addition, she has been honored in many musical compositions, such as the 1692 “Ode to Saint Cecilia” by Henry Purcell (closing chorus below). Her name appears in the names of not only churches, but in the Academia di Santa 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, updated 2017

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