Saint Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr


Cecilia was a Roman martyr of the 3rd century but practically nothing certain is known about her life. About the 4th century AD, there appeared a Greek religious story based on the loves of Cecilia and Valerian, which were a glorification of the celibate life.  It was intended to replace the more sensuous romances such as that of Daphnis and Chloe, then very popular.  Cecilia’s later popularity is mainly due to legends dating from the 5th century, some 200 years after her death.

The tradition is that she was a Christian of noble birth and promised in marriage to a non-Christian named Valerian.  But, as she had already made a vow of virginity to God, she let her husband know that she did not want to consummate their marriage.  As a result, her husband and his brother, Tiburtius (Thateus), themselves became Christians. They were arrested and martyred about the year 230 under the Emperor Alexander Severus.  Soon afterwards, Cecilia herself was brought before the prefect.

She refused to offer pagan sacrifice and converted her persecutors to Christianity, but was then  sentenced to death.  Her executioners first tried to kill her by locking her in an overheated sauna-type bathhouse.  When this failed, she was to be decapitated but, after her executioner failed in three attempts, he fled the scene.  Cecilia survived for three days in a semi-conscious state before finally succumbing. In the last three days of her life, she opened her eyes, looked at her family and friends and then closed them forever.  Those keeping vigil knew that she had entered paradise. Later her house was dedicated as a church by Pope Urban, who had encouraged her in her fidelity.  Unfortunately this story finds no confirmation in any other contemporary source.  She is not mentioned in the writings of Jerome or Ambrose, for instance, although they were particularly interested in the martyrs.

While many legends arose in the case of many early saints, in Cecilia’s case, her very existence is uncertain (similar to Christopher and Philomena).  The only basis on which her existence might be argued is the existence of a church, called the Titulus Ceciliae in the Trastevere, Rome. Founded by a certain Roman lady called Cecilia, it dates from about the 5th century and was magnificently rebuilt by Pope Paschal I about 820 when her supposed relics, with those of her companions, were brought there by the pope. The church was again rebuilt by Cardinal Emilio Sfondrati in 1599.  Then the tomb of Cecilia was opened and the body was found incorrupt but it quickly disintegrated through contact with the air.  The sculptor Maderna, however, made a life-size marble statue of the body “lying on the right side, as a maiden in her bed, her knees drawn together and seeming to be asleep”. A replica of this statue occupies Cecilia’s supposed original tomb in the cemetery of Callistus.  The church was in recent times the titular church Cardinal Carlo Martini, former Archbishop of Milan.

Cecilia is one of seven women, excluding the Blessed Virgin Mary, commemorated by name in the First Eucharist Prayer of the Mass.  She is probably best known as the patron of musicians and choirs since the 16th century.  The origin of this seems to be found in the antiphon taken from her Acts: “As the musical instruments (at her wedding feast) were playing, Cecilia sung (in her heart) to the Lord, saying: ‘May my heart remain unsullied, so that I be not confounded’.” 

The traditional account of her life is famous as the Second Nun’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  In art, her principal emblem since the 16th century is an organ (as in Raphael’s painting at Bologna) or some other musical instrument such as a lute, but she appears without emblem in ancient representations such as the mosaic in St Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (6th century), and in Roman frescoes in the catacomb of Callixtus and in the church of St Maria Antiqua.

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