Saint Cecilia (Santa Cecilia) – twice miraculously found and equally miraculously kept in everlasting youth

St. Cecilia, fragment, Garofalo, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini

St. Cecilia, fragment, Garofalo, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini

Cecilia belongs to a group early-Christian followers of Christ, who (in legends) – thanks to pagans - tortured and belittled in a very cruel way, found death and achieved sainthood. She was a Roman and her cult developed especially intensively in the city. Here we can find numerous paintings devoted to her, many sculptures, including a truly exceptional one, but most of all the refined in its decoration Church of Santa Cecilia on the Trastevere (Trastevere).

St. Cecilia, fragment, Garofalo, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Domenichino, frescos in the Chapel of St. Cecilia, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi
The Martyrdom of St. Cecilia, Guido Reni, Basilica of Santa Cecilia
Apse mosaics from the IX century, Basilica of Santa Cecilia
Pope Paschalis I and St. Cecilia, mosaic in the apse, Basilica of Santa Cecilia, fragment
St. Cecilia, Stefano Maderno, 1596, sculpture in the altar of the Basilica of Santa Cecilia
St. Cecilia, Stefano Maderno, 1596, sculpture in the altar of the Basilica of Santa Cecilia
Basilica of Santa Cecilia on the Trastevere, view of the courtyard and façade
St. Cecilia with an Angel, Carlo Saraceni, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
St. Cecilia Playing a Lute, Artemisia Gentileschi, Galleria Spada, pic. Wikipedia
The Apotheosis of St. Cecilia, Sebastiano Conca, vault fresco of the Basilica of Santa Cecilia
St. Cecilia, Giovanni F. Romanelli, XVII century, Musei Capitolini – Pinacoteca Capitolina
The Angel Appearing to St. Cecilia and Valerian, Luigi Vanvitelli, XVIII century, Basilica of Santa Cecilia
St. Cecilia, Garofalo, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Chapel of St. Cecilia, The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia, copy of a painting by Raphael, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi
Altar of St. Cecilia, Antonio Gherardi, Church of San Carlo ai Catinari
St. Cecilia (next to Pope Paschal I) mosaic in the apse of the Basilica of Santa Cecilia
St. Cecilia, fragment, Ludovico Carracci, approx. 1610, Musei Capitolini – Pinacoteca Capitolina
The Death of St. Cecilia, Domenichino, Chapel of St. Cecilia in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi
St. Cecilia, fragment, Annibale Carracci, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
The Death of St. Cecilia, fragment, Antonio Raggi, Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone
Basilica of Santa Cecilia, reliefs adorning the statue of St. Cecilia with images of Cecilia, Valerian and Tiburtius, Stefano Maderno
Basilica of Santa Cecilia, mosaic frieze in the portico of the church façade with an image of St. Cecilia
Basilica of Santa Cecilia, fresco depicting the miraculous discovery of St. Cecilia’s remains, XIII century

Cecilia belongs to a group early-Christian followers of Christ, who (in legends) – thanks to pagans - tortured and belittled in a very cruel way, found death and achieved sainthood. She was a Roman and her cult developed especially intensively in the city. Here we can find numerous paintings devoted to her, many sculptures, including a truly exceptional one, but most of all the refined in its decoration Church of Santa Cecilia on the Trastevere (Trastevere).

 


The saint’s cult developed in the IV century, but similarly to other early-Christians female martyrs (e.g. St. Agnes), we know very little about her (cult of the martyrs). Such a situation stimulated the creation of numerous apocryphal biographies of Cecilia, while legends about her grew in the Roman Church from century to century. As early as the V century her first vita appeared, however most information was acquired from the XIII-century Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine. Many stories depict Cecilia as the daughter of patricians and a devoted follower of Christ, a youthful virgin born around the year 200, who took vows of chastity. Persuaded by her parents to marry, she finally gave in.  However, before marrying a young man by the name of Valerian, she first convinced him to accept the Christian faith, which he did, along with his brother Tiburtius.  It is said that they were baptized by Pope Urban I. Soon after persecutions of Christians began, and the three of them devoted themselves to burying the victims of those persecutions. Although, there is no evidence as to the pogroms of Christians in Rome at that time, legend says, that for this merciful act, meaning burial, the two men were executed, while Cecilia who was thrown into prison, strongly resisted the persuasions to give up her faith. When these did not help, she was subjected to elaborate tortures – she was to be suffocated in the baths with steam and smoke, which some connected with boiling in a cauldron. When this procedure did not bring about the desired effect, her torturers thrice struck her in the neck, but these blows also did not cause death.  The fourth blow was, according to Roman law, illegal, that is why Cecilia died of excessive blood loss.
 

She was buried by Urban I, in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, next to the „Crypt of the Popes”.  In the place where her house stood, which was also the place of her suffering, a church was to be built and consecrated by the pope.

Through the ages, Cecilia was forgotten, until the IX century, when the ambitious and entrepreneurial pope, Paschal I, decided to find her body and bury it in a church which he himself expanded in the Trastevere. Her remains were difficult to find, but the pope himself helped in discovering the place of their burial, when the saint herself appeared to him in a dream encouraging him to carry on with the search. Finally her grave was discovered, and her body was recognized, as is told, by the sword blows to the neck, a golden dress and a cilice which she was wearing. Her remains were sealed in a sarcophagus and placed under the altar of the apse, which is embellished by a great mosaic funded by Paschalis. In it, St. Cecilia hugs the pope in a protective manner, in this way ensuring him with her favor.

 

The most important part of the martyr’s earthly remains (the head) was taken to the Lateran, where it found its place next to other significant relics. And it would seem that this is where the story of St. Cecilia and her holy remains ends, but not so. At the end of the XVI century, another equally ambitious and entrepreneurial clergyman – titular cardinal of the Church of St. Cecilia, Paolo Sfondrati once again took it upon himself to renovate the church. Wanting to ensure that his undertaking would have the appropriate setting and to resurrect the spirit of faith among the inhabitants of Rome, he told of a miracle. While opening the medieval sarcophagus of St. Cecilia, the martyr appeared, to a small group of people, in an immaculate, untouched by centuries earthly figure. And what with the Lateran head? – we could rightly ask. One month after all this occurred a great statue of the saint appeared in the altar, the work of a young and little-known artist – Stefano Maderno.   He was commissioned to execute in marble, exactly what he was told by the cardinal, since the artist himself seemed unworthy to have the honor of seeing the holy coffin. In his sculpture Cecilia looks as if she was alive. Her martyrdom is depicted only by the marks on her neck. She is lying on her side with her arms stretched out along her body and fingers pointing to some mysterious message. As interpreters of the work would have it, the three fingers of the saint’s right hand symbolize the Holy Trinity, while the one finger on her left hand – God. We do not see her face, since Cecilia is facing away from the onlooker, which only serves to increase the dramaturgy of this beautiful early-Baroque statue.

Without a doubt it must be admitted that the expectations of the cardinal were fulfilled, today we would say that he succeeded in providing media coverage for the event - the church in the Trastevere was visited by pilgrimages of the faithful.  A witness of this event, Antonio Bosio, describes the crowd of people filling the atrium of the courtyard in front of the church, which was pushed by a sea of the faithful gathered on the bridges and squares leading to the place itself. Fainting women, prostrate people, weeping, and spasms were so commonplace, that the Swiss Guard was called in to control the phenomena of the mass participation in the miracle.

 

So much for the legends, but what did the historical facts look like, if we could even speak of such? Cecilia perhaps lived at the turn of the II and III centuries and came from a well-known family of the Caecilii Metelli who in the same place where the church is located today, owned the so-called insulae (apartment buildings) and perhaps in one of them some rooms were made available for meetings of the Christian community. Archeological research did not provide any information about a residence of the patricians which was supposed to be located there, nor did it give any information about a place of cult. Most likely the name of the patron was taken from the founder of the church in the V century. It is then, that the vivid legend of Cecilia the martyr, was developed. Her first image dates back to the VI century (Ravenna, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo), while in the VII century her grave in Rome became a place of worship.

Scenes of the martyrdom of Cecilia were pretty late to find their way into European art.  Initially she was presented at the moment of being laid in the grave as an assisting martyr in the company of the most important early-Christian martyrs. She was discovered anew by Baroque painters, this time exposing her musical talents.  Due to this fact, she became the patron of music and musicians, most often being presented with musical instruments, especially the lute, an instrument of delicate sound, very much appreciated in the times of Renaissance and Baroque, but also with organs, which were strangely enough invented two centuries after the legendary death of the martyr. And so in this way, in order to satisfy the needs of private clients she was depicted with various instruments, for the needs of the cult also at the moment of her suffering, or while achieving sainthood. On a grand scale her figure inspired the rococo fresco painter Sebastiano Conca, who decorated the ceiling of the Church of Santa Cecilia in the Trastevere with the scene of her apotheosis.

Where does the connection between music and Saint Cecilia stem from? This relation came about in the late Middle Ages, when she was pronounced the patron of church music. According to The Golden Legend, Cecilia loved music and when she heard it, „in her heart she sang to the Lord.” Some believe this association came about because of the misinterpretation of the verses in her passio, according to which Cecilia was to play organs during her wedding in honor of the Lord. According to others, the paragraph regarding her wedding concerned Cecilia’s singing, which she intoned in the name of Christ, as soon as she heard the wedding music. Nevertheless, she is considered a patron saint of music, musicians and poets. She enjoyed popularity not only among painters and sculptors – great musical compositions were written about her by Henry Purcell, Georg Friedrich Handel and Josef Haydn.