The St Cecilia myth Jump to main content

The St Cecilia myth

Roderick Swanston (1948-2018) was a musician, musical lecturer, writer, broadcaster and previous ISM President. He wrote this article delving into the history of the patron saint for music for the ISM in 2009.

On 22 November each year the Roman Catholic church celebrates the feast of St Cecilia, on whom it has bestowed the dual patron-sainthood of blindness and music. Like most such associations these have been ‘thrust upon her’ (cf Malvolio’s greatness in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) by Catholic tradition rather than historical evidence, but, unlike some saints, at least St Cecilia was a real person. Her protection of the blind pre-dates music by several centuries, and her association with the former may well have opened the door to her link with the latter. Though she was not blind herself, outer blindness has often been associated with inner vision.

Most of the earliest stories about St Cecilia stem from the Golden Legend, a 13th century anthology of saints’ lives by Jacobus de Voragine. Geoffrey Chaucer undoubtedly based his account of St Cecilia’s life in the Second Nun’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales on this source. Both Chaucer and Voragine associate Cecilia’s name with the ‘lily and the rose’, a floral link that recurs again and again in folk-tales: when good characters speak, ‘lilies and roses’ are said to pour forth from their mouths. Both associate her with blindness, though they do not suggest that this might derive from her name: Cecilia, being close to the Latin word for blindness, caecitas. Neither make any mention of her special association with music.

Most contemporary authorities agree that Cecilia was born in Rome in the 2nd century AD into a wealthy patrician family. Some claim she was martyred around 230 AD, others, more recently, assert that she died in Sicily under the reign of Marcus Aurelius in 176-180. Despite the likelihood of her being persecuted and ostracized she grew up a Christian. Determined to preserve her virginity on her wedding night she told her husband, Valerian, she was protected by an angel who would kill him if he touched her either for lust or love. He, not unnaturally, wanted more information about this ‘angel’ so demanded to meet him (or her or it, whatever they are). She told him the time and place and legend relates they met, he converted to Christianity and subsequently honoured his wife’s chastity. But more was required of Valerian than abstinence as both he and his brother Tiburtius were tried and martyred along with their executioner Maximus who wept as he saw their spirits depart to heaven. Subsequently Cecilia herself was arrested and tried. She, like her husband and brother-in-law, was required to abandon her Christianity and pay homage to Jove in accordance with Roman law (a kind of ancient nationality test?). She refused and was condemned to being burnt to death in a bath. But she was magically protected and lay in the bath for at least a day without ill effect, so an executioner was dispatched to behead her. He tried three times but failed: thrice being the legal limit for this kind of butchery. Legend then took over from history and relates that she survived for three days after her ‘execution’ preaching to her fellow Christians, who tended her wounds, while praying to God. Finally, she demanded a church be erected on the site of her execution. Then she died.

St Cecilia’s life and death possess many things that must have attracted her beatification by the early Church: her courage in the face of persecution, her identification with the virginity (purity) of Mary the mother of God and her remarkable heavenly visions. It might seem ironic these days that she thus became associated with music, which is one of the most sensuous arts. Yet it must be remembered that in the 15th century when she first became associated with music, music was more often seen not as a sensuous art but as a revelation of the divine order. Like many nuns, which Cecilia was not, her abstinence led to her divine revelations.

Cecilia had to wait over a thousand years before she acquired music as part of her saintly portfolio. Perhaps the growing cult of the Virgin Mary in the 14th century led to a new interest in all female saints, particularly those who resembled the Mary. Cecilia often appears in poses similar to those of the Virgin Mary. Seizing upon her visions, in particular those she had in the last days of her life, the church began to suggest these visions contained music, which was often thought to be the inevitable concomitant of visions as it was the language of the angels. The angel that recommended Cecilia’s chastity could quite easily be subsumed into the visions of her last days. But it was not till the 16th century that she started appearing in pictures with an organ or other instruments, from which time she became firmly linked with music and the organ.

Raphael’s painting may well be the first to depict Cecilia in connection with music. Raphael painted his Ecstasy of St Cecilia sometime before 1515, possibly in honour of a fellow painter Francesco Francia who had supposedly died after seeing Cecilia. In Raphael’s picture she is shown holding a portative organ surrounded by saints. At her feet are a collection of discarded instruments abandoned to show the pre-eminence of the organ, now firmly associated with Cecilia. The organ was for St Cecilia what the lute or lyre was for Orpheus, and the mention of Orpheus is a reminder that someone had to become in Christian mythology what Orpheus had been in Greek, an immortalized musician. Now complete with her visions accompanied by music and the organ the cult of Cecilia started to grow.

Nearly a century later Guido Reni painted Saint Cecilia in 1606. In this painting she is dressed to look both contemporary and like a classical maiden. This time she is holding a viol though an organ appears behind her. The use of the viol may suggest not only the intimacy of her music, but also represent the passion associated with secular viol music which in the 17th century seemed closer to her spirit than the stylistic objectivity of contemporary organ music. If this is the case then Reni clearly shows Cecilia now to have been incorporated into a more humanistic realm. In the painting however she transcends whatever earthly association the instrument she is holding may possess as she is clearly not concentrating on her playing (patron saint of music students?) as her eyes are once again fixed on an unseen vision. This painting is called St Cecilia of Catacomb, a reference to her Christian martyrdom.

St Cecilia has not been ignored in later years as the recent exhibition of J W Waterhouse at the Royal Academy showed. Painted in 1895, Waterhouse depicts Cecilia sleeping (or having visions) while two angels play viols for her. Neglected in the background is a small organ. More significantly she is seated near the sea-shore thus vindicating, or perhaps inspiring, W H Auden’s line from his 1942 poem Hymn to St Cecilia ‘And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin / Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer.’

After painting, music took up Cecilia, the first festival dedicated to her being held in Normandy in 1570. This was a competition and one of the prize-winners was Roland de Lassus. In 1594 a musical academy (a collection of learned humanists rather than an educational institution) was founded in Rome. She became its patron, and it is possible it was around this time 22 November became her saint’s day.

Poetical works followed painting and music in the 17th century with, amongst many others, John Dryden’s Song for St Cecilia’s Day (1687) and Alexander’s Feast (1697) followed by Alexander Pope’s Ode to St Cecilia in 1708. These coincide with the first British musical celebrations of Cecilia, which took place in the Stationers’ Hall in 1683 and which continued for the next thirty years except for 1686, 1688 and 1689. Purcell composed Welcome all pleasures to words by Christopher Fishburn for the first celebration. In this Fishburn tried with some contortion to reconcile music’s sensuousness with Cecilia’s chastity: ‘... And virtue thou innocent fire, / Made by the powers above / To temper the heat of desire, / Music that fancy employs / In rapture of innocent flame.’ Purcell did not take the bait, and set the words with more rapture than chastity. In 1692 Purcell composed his largest ode on a libretto by Nicholas Brady: Hail Bright Cecilia. With these superior words he could spread himself not only in the illustration of various instruments but in the Platonic conceits of ‘Soul of the World’ where the ‘jarring atoms’ of his dissonant counterpoint resolve onto one great ‘harmony’.

Purcell was not the only composer to write for the Cecilian celebrations. John Blow composed music for three odes, Daniel Purcell wrote two. Jeremiah Clarke set Dryden’s Song in 1687. Under the Georges, Cecilian celebrations disappeared though Handel set Dryden’s words again in 1739. In 1889 C H H Parry set them again for the Leeds Festival. All these works might be said to be in a grand choral tradition. More intimate is the setting by Benjamin Britten of the poem W H Auden dedicated to him in 1942. Here music, and by association Cecilia, is portrayed as a respite and a forgiveness. Her divine inspiration is now a metaphor for artistic inspiration: ‘Translated Daughter, come down and startle / Composing mortals with immortal fire.’

One of the most perennial images of Cecilia is that through her visions she brought a part of heaven to earth, a frequent attribution of music itself. Hearing her play the organ, an astonished angel is supposed to have descended to listen, rather as the birds listened to Landini play in Bocaccio’s Decameron. Once again Dryden linked the classical allusions latent in the Cecilian story in Alexander’s Feast. Playing at this celebration Timotheus raised mortals to heaven. Cecilia reversed this. ‘Let old Timotheus yield the prize, / Or both divide the crown; / He raised a mortal to the skies, / She drew an angel down.’