St. Cecilia: The Saint Patron of Music

Saint Cecilia [1896] by John Melhuish Strudwick

Today (22 November) is the feast of St. Cecilia. Saint Cecilia (200 – 222 AD) was a Roman virgin martyr, who became the patroness of music and musicians. Legend has it that Cecilia was a gifted musician from childhood and composed hymns of such beauty that angels came down from heaven to listen to her. She vowed to preserve her virginity to an Angel of God. However, she was married against her will to a pagan nobleman named Valerian (Valerius), and then told her husband to respect her vow. Valerian told her that he would only do so if he saw the Angel himself. Cecilia promised to him that he could if the Church baptised him. He was baptised, and then saw the Angel talking to Cecilia. She, her husband and her husband’s brother were all subsequently martyred for their experiences. Saint Cecilia’s final resting place is in Santa Cecilia Church in Trastevere in Rome, and the first celebration of the Day of St. Cecilia took place in Évreux, Normandy in 1570.

Many composers paid tribute to Saint Cecilia, including Henry Purcell with his Ode to St. Cecilia, composed in 1692, and Benjamin Britten with Hymn to St Cecilia (1942). Artists were not lagging behind, and many also painted Saint Cecilia, most notably Raphael (1516) and Rubens (1639). The painting to the right is by John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937), and it depicts Saint Cecilia at the organ. Its distinguishing features are the attention to detail and faces inspired by Edward Coley Burne-Jones. The painting below is by Nicolas Poussin. It shows Saint Cecilia playing a harpsichord, while two cherubs hold up a scroll with a musical notation in front of her. The two angels are also seen singing in the background, while a third cherub is holding the curtains.

Saint Cecilia [1627] by Nicolas Poussin

"...Orpheus could lead the savage race;

And trees unrooted left their place;

Sequacious of the lyre:

But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder high’r;

When to her organ, vocal breath was giv’n

An angel heard, and straight appear’d

Mistaking earth for Heav’n..."

 (a stanza from John Dryden's poem "A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day", 
composed on the occasion of Saint Cecilia’s Day in 1687). 

Saint Cecilia [1895] by John William Waterhouse

According to another legend, Saint Cecilia never wanted to hear any musical instruments because she wished to remain “pure” so that she could hear heavenly music. It is this account, as well as Alfred Tennyson’s verse: ‘”In a clear walled city on the sea, Near gilded organ pipes…slept St Cecily” that prompted John William Waterhouse to paint sleeping Saint Cecilia. In this painting, Saint Cecilia is deep in sleep as two angels play a violin and a rebec. Waterhouse employs the symbolism of the rose and the poppy in this painting, with the rose associated with the legend of Saint Cecilia and the poppy symbolising sleep.

3 thoughts on “St. Cecilia: The Saint Patron of Music

  1. I’ve been in ensembles singing both the Purcell and the Britten pieces, and love(d) the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Cecilia’ (even if it’s nothing to do with the saint). I think I’ve only seen one stained glass window with her, even if she often appears in Pre-Raphaelite canvases in the art galleries I’ve visited.

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  2. Thank you for sharing this one, Diana! The church choir that I used to be part of was named Sancta Caecilia Chorale, as a tribute to the patron saint of music. Unfortunately, the choir disbanded years ago and we all went our separate ways.

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