The painting ‘Saint Cecilia’ by the Baroque artist, Guido Reni, painted in 1606. (Public Domain)

By Iona Mccomie Smith | The BL

‘Saint Cecilia’ is a painting that portrays the image of an incredibly significant woman from within the Christian faith; the first martyr of the religion with an ‘incorruptible body’, who holds the honor of being the patron saint of church music.

As the patron saint of Christian music, she is typically presented playing the viola, small organ, or a plethora of other musical instruments. When depicted alongside other musicians, she is often portrayed singing with wholehearted devotion to her God. It is said that her name “Cecilia” means “lily of heaven”.

The painting ‘Saint Cecilia with an Angel’ by the artist Orazio Gentileschi painted in 1618-1621, depicts the Saint playing the organ alongside an Angel. (Public domain)

The story of the life of Saint Cecilia

Cecilia’s date of birth is unknown, but it is believed that she died in 177 AD. According to a late 5th-century legend, Cecilia was the daughter of a wealthy noble family of Ancient Rome. From a young age, as a devout Christian, she vowed her virginity to God, however, Cecilia’s family had other plans in store for her and arranged for her to be married to a young pagan nobleman named Valerian.

The painting ‘Saint Cecilia with an Angel’ by the artist Orazio Gentileschi painted in 1618-1621, depicts the Saint playing the organ alongside an Angel. (Public domain)

On her wedding day, while the music of a secular nature resounded, Cecilia sat apart singing to God in her heart. She prayed to God, “Please keep my heart and body pure to free me from disgrace”. The history books tell us that Cecilia’s prayers were answered…

On her wedding night, Cecilia told Valerian that she was being watched over by an angel of the Lord who wished her to keep her vow of chastity and that Valerian would be punished if he was to take her virginity. He agreed to respect her wish on the condition that he be allowed to see the angel himself. She replied that he could if he would go to the third milestone on the Via Appia and be baptized by Pope Urban I. Dutifully he did and on his return from his baptism, Valerian witnessed the Angel talking with Cecilia and crowning her with a chaplet of roses and lilies. After this incident, Valerian’s brother-in-law Tiburtius, who also saw the angel, converted to Christianity devoutly.

The painting ‘The Martyrs Valerian, Tiburzio and Cecilia’ by artist Orazio Gentileschi, painted in 1620, portrays a scene where Cecilia proves the presence of an angel to her husband and her brother-in-law. (Public Domain)

This was a time when Christianity was being severely persecuted in the empiric city of Rome. Valerian and his brother Tiburtius then were martyred by the prefect Turcius Almachius as a result of their public charity as Christians. Cecilia was soon sought after by the officers of the prefect. However, the persecutors did not dare to publicly murder Cecilia because of her noble influence. So, they maliciously decided to lock her in the bathhouse of her own home in an attempt to suffocate her with steam. This attempted assasination however, failed miserably. Their next attempt came in the form of an experienced executioner who was sent to secretly behead her. For some miraculous reason, however, yet again the attempt failed. After striking her neck three times with his sword he could not sever her head. Deeply frightened, he ran away, leaving the virgin lying in a pool of her own blood. She lived on for three days and on her death bed requested that the pope convert her home into a church.

The painting ‘The Martyrdom of St Cecilia’ by painter Carlo Saraceni, painted in 1610, depicts the scene of the Holy Woman being persecuted. (Public domain)

The church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere. (Wikipedia Commons)

St. Cecilia was buried in the catacomb of St. Callistus, near Rome. In the early 9th century, Pope Paschal I (817-824) built the church of St. Cecilia in the Trastevere quarter of Rome and wished to move her relics and grave to this site. However, at first, he could not find them and thought that they had been stolen. In a vision, he encountered St. Cecilia who encouraged him to keep searching for the relics. Soon after, the martyr’s body was found ‘incorrupt’, draped in the material of gold brocade and with blood-soaked cloth at her feet in the Catacomb of Prætextatus. Her remains were then reburied under the high altar of St. Cecilia’s church in Trastevere.

The church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere. (Wikipedia Commons)

777 years later, Cecilia’s sleep was disturbed again. During the restoration of the church in 1599, in the presence of several other witnesses, Cardinal Sfondrato himself opened the cypress coffin containing the body of St. Cecilia. Miraculously, her body remained intact, lying on one side, clearly showing the injury to her neck.

The sculpture ‘Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia’ depicts the indestructible body that Stefano Maderno witnessed in the coffin. The saint’s hand posture signifies her praying and faith in Christianity. This is the same position that the Holy Woman lay in for 3 days and 3 nights before passing away. (Public domain)

Sculptor Stefano Maderno depicted the scene he saw in the coffin that day in the famous work “Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia” which is being preserved in the church of Trastevere.

The image of St. Cecilia at the organ, as well as playing the violin or cello is portrayed in innumerable paintings and stained glass windows around the world. She is also commemorated in countless substantial festivals and musical celebrations, magnificent masterpieces of sculpture and in literature.