St. Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr, Pray For Us!

SAINTS & ART: St. Cecilia was beheaded in a Roman persecution and buried with the bishops and martyrs in the Catacomb of Callistus.

Master of St. Cecilia, “St. Cecilia and Scenes From Her Life,” ca. 1304
Master of St. Cecilia, “St. Cecilia and Scenes From Her Life,” ca. 1304 (photo: Public Domain)

She’s one of those women listed in the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon: “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia …” She’s venerated as a virgin and martyr and regarded as the patron of music. 

The historical facts connected with her life are harder to ascertain. We know she died during a persecution but, given there were so many in the ancient Church, it’s hard to say exactly which one. Some put it as early as the reign of Marcus Aurelius, i.e., somewhere in the 170s. Some put it in the reign of Severus Alexander, i.e., the 220s. The Catholic Encyclopedia offers us a whole range of possibilities before noting that our best historical estimate seems to come from where Cecilia was buried. She was buried in the Catacomb of Callistus, in that section that dates from the late second century forward. 

Like the other women found in the Roman Canon, Cecilia was a virgin-martyr. In the ancient world, virginity was a telltale sign of being a Christian. Christians valued virginity; the pagan world did not. If you wanted to smoke out a Christian, tell him to offer incense to the state’s gods and her to abandon her virginity. Pagans could do either: if you were polytheistic, throwing a few more deities into the mix posed no problem, and sex was recreational. 

Legend has it that Cecilia was wed to a pagan Roman noble, Valerianus. When he led her into the marriage chamber, she said that she was consecrated and that an angel guarded her virginity. Her less-than-credulous husband demanded to see the angel, whereupon Cecilia told him to go to the third milestone on the Appian Way and meet Pope Urban I there. Valerianus must have loved Cecilia, because he did as she told him, met the Pope, and was baptized, coming back to her a Christian. An angel then appeared to both, crowning them with roses and lilies, signs of love and chastity. Valerianus soon won his brother to the faith, both becoming active Christians in terms of giving alms and burying the dead Christians. That got them on Roman radar. Eventually Valerianus, his brother Tibertius, and their would-be executioner who was also converted, were all killed together and Cecilia buried them. Cecilia was now on the wanted list, condemned to be asphyxiated in a hot bath but was later beheaded. Urban ordered her buried with the bishops and martyrs in the Catacomb of Callistus.

These details are captured in the “Life of St. Cecilia,” captured around 1300 in tempera on wood and to be found at the Uffizi in Florence. The “Master of St. Cecilia” is unknown, although the Uffizi commentary tries to connect him, at least in terms of being influenced, with a variety of contemporary artists, including Giotto. The work was originally an altarpiece for St. Cecilia’s Church.

Cecilia dominates the centerpiece, with four scenes each from her life on her right and left. Starting in the upper left, we have her wedding feast. The top right scene closest to her and the bottom right scene furthest from her depicts her discussing her virginity and the angel and sending her husband to Pope Urban. On the bottom right closest to her, we have Valerianus and Tibertius being catechized by Cecilia. On the upper left closest to her Valerianus is baptized. On the upper left farthest from her, Cecilia preaches to those who came to arrest her and, on the bottom left nearest her, to her judge. On the bottom right farthest from her, her executioners stoke the boiling bath intended to kill her, while the executioner in green wields the sword for the coup de grâce, 

My one issue with the painting is the chronology of Valerianus’ baptism. The tradition seems to suggest that Valerianus was baptized by Urban on the Appian Way. The painting seems to suggest a lag, with Cecilia catechizing her husband. That would not have been unusual, given that adult baptism in the early Church was customarily preceded by a period of catechumenal preparation. But that’s not how the tradition is usually presented. I leave that to more qualified experts to explain.

Likewise, I leave to those experts how Cecilia came to be associated with music. Christian iconography seems to suggest that the earliest representations of Cecilia focused on her martyrdom, e.g., typically a palm of victory. It’s only in the Middle Ages that Christian art gives her a musical instrument — usually a hand organ — as an attribute. What it is that connected her to music — the music of her wedding, her hearing heavenly music (an idea captured by Raphael in his St. Cecilia painting), and/or the idea of music and female refinement — might be explanations.

Women throughout history have been the gatekeepers regulating and even elevating sexual behavior, especially men’s sexual behavior. Cecilia, who remained committed first and foremost to her heavenly spouse, brought Valerianus along with her. Do we need to recover the importance of purity and chastity — especially consecrated virginity — today? That’s one reason I have emphasized virginal saints throughout this year: Maria Goretti (here and here), Agatha, Agnes and Lucy.