Santa Cecilia

Cecilia is a Christian martyr of the 2nd-3rd century AD, commemorated on 22 November, whose veneration is very popular for her patronage on music, instrumentalists and singers.
Santa Cecilia by Guido Reni
Santa Cecilia, by Guido Reni


A young Roman girl belonging to a noble family, from childhood Cecilia had consecrated her virginity to God. Forced to marry Valerian, she persuaded him to respect her virginity vow and to meet Pope Urban to receive baptism, in order to be able to see Cecilia's guardian angel. When Valerian got to see the angel, he converted to Christ his brother Tiburtius as well, and both were soon martyred by order of the prefect Turcius Almachius. Before their death, they converted a Roman officer, Maximus, who was also executed. Cecilia was then taken to Almachius for distributing her wealth to the poor and was sentenced to be suffocated in her bathroom. However, she survived, and the death sentence by suffocation was changed into being struck three times with an ax. She died after three days, and was buried in the catacombs of Callistus.
The "Golden Legend" reports that Pope Urban II, who had converted Valerian and had been witness of her martyrdom, "buried the body of Cecilia among those of bishops and consecrated her house into a church, as she had asked."

The worship

Cecilia's body and those of Popes Urban and Lucius, her husband Valerian, Tiburtius, and Maximus, were later by Pope Paschal I moved to the church dedicated to St. Cecilia in Trastevere. In 1599, during the restoration of the basilica on the occasion of the Jubilee of 1600, a sarcophagus was found with the body of Cecilia in excellent preservation. Stefano Maderno (1566-1636) was commissioned a statue that would reproduce as closely as possible the appearance and position of the body of Cecilia as it had been found; the statue is now under the central altar of the church.
Santa Cecilia by Raphael
Santa Cecilia, by Raphael

Patronage of musicians

St. Cecilia is usually represented with a musical instrument - flute, organ, violin, harp, harpsichord, or singing. She is the patron of Church music, musicians, poets; of the town of Albi, France; the Archdiocese of Omaha; and of Mar del Plata, Argentina. It is uncertain why Cecilia became the patron saint of music. In fact, an explicit link between Cecilia and music is documented only since the late Middle Ages.

The most plausible explanation seems to be a misinterpretation of the incipit antiphon for the Mass on Cecilia's Feast: "Cantantibus organis, Cecilia virgo in corde suo soli Domino decantabat dicens: fiat Domine cor meum et corpus meum inmaculatum ut non confundar". (="While musical instruments were playing, virgin Cecilia sang in her heart to the Lord only, saying: Lord, let my heart and my body be immaculate so I shall not be confounded"). The text was traditionally connected to the wedding banquet of Cecilia singing to God with organ accompaniment. That is why starting from the 15th century the saint was portrayed with a small organ by her side.

As a matter of fact, the oldest codices do not report this version, but "Candentibus organis, Caecilia virgo...." The "organs" were the instruments of torture, and the antiphon would describe Cecilia at the time of martyrdom "among the flaming instruments of torture, she sang to God in her heart".

Whatever the origin of the link between this saint and music, for hundreds of years Cecilia has inspired musicians, poets and painters.

In the Anglican church, annual celebrations of the saint's feast day (22 November) began in 1683, organized by the Musical Society of London, a group of musicians and music lovers.

In the 19th century a so-called "Cecilian Movement" arose in Italy, France and Germany to restore dignity to the liturgical music subtracting it from the influence of opera and popular music.
Santa Cecilia by Guercino
Santa Cecilia, by Guercino

Santa Cecilia in Art

  • Francesco di Giovanni Botticini (1446 - July 22, 1497): "Saint Cecilia between Saint Valerian and Saint Tiburtius with a Donor", ca. 1470, Tempera on panel, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Raphael, "The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia" about 1514), oil on wood transferred to canvas, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Italy (a copy made by Guido Reni, is in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome).
  • Guido Reni (4 November 1575 - 18 August 1642): "St Cecilia", 1606, Oil on canvas, Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena
  • Domenichino's (Domenico Zampieri 1581 -1641) masterpiece frescoes "Scenes of the Life of Saint Cecilia" (1612 - 1615) in the Polet Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
  • Artemisia Gentileschi, "St Cecilia Playing a Lute" (c. 1616), Oil on canvas, Galleria Spada, Rome
  • Peter Paul Rubens, "St. Cecilia" (1639-40), oil on panel, Staaliche Museen, Berlin, where the saint is portrayed playing a spinet.

Santa Cecilia in Literature

  • Geoffrey Chaucer, the biography and exaltation of the virgin martyr Cecilia in the "Second Nun's Tale", "Canterbury Tales"
  • John Dryden, A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687 set to music by Handel in 1736, and later by Hubert Parry (1889).
Santa Cecilia by Artemisia Gentileschi
Santa Cecilia, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Santa Cecilia in Music

  • "Messa di Santa Cecilia" (1720) composed by Alessandro Scarlatti for Cardinal Acquaviva for performance on St. Cecilia's Day; in Latin, for organ and strings
  • Joseph Haydn, No. 3 in C major, 'Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae' (1766-73) also known as 'Cäcilienmesse' (St Cecilia)
  • "Hymn to St Cecilia", Op. 27, a choral piece by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), based on poem by W. H. Auden written between 1940 and 1942, "Three Songs for St. Cecilia's Day"
  • Herbert Howells, "A Hymn for St. Cecilia" (1960) commissioned by the Livery Company of the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
  • "Messe solennelle en l'honneur de Sainte-Cécile" (1855) a solemn mass in G major by Charles Gounod, scored for three soloists, mixed choir, orchestra and organ.
  • "Hail! Bright Cecilia", also known as Ode to St. Cecilia, composed by Henry Purcell to a text by Irishman Nicholas Brady in 1692 in honour of the feast day of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of musicians.
  • Cecilia (1934), "azione sacra" (one-act opera, or musical play) by Licinio Refice, libretto by Emidio Mucci
  • "Cæciliemusik" (1998) by Danish composer Frederik Reesen Magle
  • "Cecilia, vergine romana" (2000) a cantata by Arvo Pärt.
Santa Cecilia by Rubens
Santa Cecilia, by Peter Paul Rubens

Suggested reading and links