musings on the church calendar from one who seldom doubts
Recently I was reminded of a column I wrote first in 2008 about a saint who is extremely important to church musicians. While St. Cecilia, is not yet included on the Calendar of Saints of our Episcopal Church, she is one of the most honored martyrs remembered each November 22nd by a number of faiths, beginning with our Roman Catholic brethren. and including the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican Church. Hence, I thought it appropriate to present the information again with a few additions.
According to early (perhaps exaggerated) Christian stories, Cecilia, a pious virgin member of a Roman senatorial family in the second or third century, was betrothed to a young man named Valerianus. On their wedding night, she informed the groom that, in order to consummate their marriage, he would have to deal with an angel to whom she had considered herself betrothed before the wedding. The young man was so impressed with this announcement that he became a Christian himself so that he could meet the angel. Cecilia arranged for her husband to be baptized by Pope Urbanus (also known as Urban I). After his baptism, he returned to his bride and the angel crowned the happy couple with roses and lilies.
Subsequently, Valerianus converted his brother Tiburtius, and the two new Christian brothers displayed their zeal by generously giving funds for the burial of many who had confessed and died for their belief in Christ. A Roman prefect, Turcius Almachius, heard of these acts and condemned the brothers to death. Maximus, the soldier dispatched to carry out the execution, was instead converted and was himself condemned for refusing to execute the two brothers. Cecilia later contributed from her families’ wealth to bury all three of those martyrs in one tomb. This sparked the anger of the authorities, who now decreed that Cecilia should also die by suffocation in her own steamy bath, but she survived this. Next, the executioner delivered three blows with a sword to sever her head, but this too was unsuccessful. Cecilia lived for a number of days afterward, during which she made arrangements to donate her property to use as a place of worship.
Even the authorities recording this information admit that it may be romanticized. But this lady has been revered since at least the fifth century for her martyrdom, which is somewhat more factually established.
On our last trip to Rome, my wife and I observed a place in the Callistus Catacomb where Cecilia with her partially severed head was represented as “bloody but unbowed.” It appears that while she may have been buried originally near the place on the Appian Way where the Church named for her is located, her remains were later moved to a crypt in the Callistus Catacomb near that of the early popes. In the ninth century, Pope Paschal discovered her remains clothed in a golden gown along with evidence of her own blood. Some sources report that her body was uncorrupted. The church in the Trastevere area of Rome, thought to be on the former premises of Cecilia’s home, was subsequently greatly remodeled and improved by Pope Paschal. He had her remains and those of her fellow martyrs reburied under the high altar there. This church was sumptuously restored in 1599 by Cardinal Sfondrato.
Although there is disagreement over which emperor was in power at the time of her death, religious authorities agree that it occurred on November 22, the day of her commemoration as stated above in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Cecilia was a gifted musician who, according to one source, “could play any musical instrument, sing any song, hear Angelic harmonies and may have invented the organ.” She has long been the patron saint of composers, musicians, singers, poets and music. She is mentioned by Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, The Second Nun’s Tale. There have been many paintings of St. Cecilia. A number of them appear in the Wikipedia article cited below. One of the better examples is a 1606 painting of St. Cecelia with a violin by Guido Rossi.
Her devotion to her Christian beliefs leading to her martyrism is inspiring, of course, but the fame of her musicianship springing from her life in the second or third century is truly remarkable+
(c) 2008, 2016 Thomas H. Peterson
Kirsch, Johann Peter. "St. Cecilia." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 28 Dec. 2016 www.newadvent.org/cathen/03471b.htm.
Schenck, Tim and Gunn, Scott. "St. Cecilia." 2016 Saintly Scorecard. Forward Movement. Cincinnati, Ohio.