WHY IS CECILIA patron saint of music? – I’m often asked, perhaps because in Bramhall Parish Church we have a fine oak organ screen statue of the saint, whose Feast we celebrate today, which, though fine, doesn’t render her quite as beautiful as does Guido Reni, above. In 1914 the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould provided the following account:
In the fourth century appeared a Greek religious romance on the Loves of Cecilia and Valerian, written, like those of Chrysanthus and Daria, Julian and Basilissa, in glorification of the virginal life, and with the purpose of taking the place of the sensual romances of Daphnis and Chloe, Chereas and Callirhoe, etc., which were then popular. There may have been a foundation of fact on which the story was built up; but the Roman Calendar of the fourth century, and the Carthaginian Calendar of the fifth make no mention of Cecilia.
It is said, however, that there was a church dedicated to S. Cecilia in Rome in the fifth century, in which Pope Symmachus held a council in 500. But Symmachus held no council in that year. That held at Easter, 502, was in the “basilica Julii”; that on September 1, 505, was held in the “basilica Sessoriana”; that on October 23, 501, was in “porticu beati Petri apostoli que appelatur Palmaria.” The next synod, November 6, 502, met in the church of St. Peter; that in 533, “ante confessionem beati Petri”; and that in 503 also in the basilica of S. Peter. Consequently, till better evidence is produced, we must conclude that S. Cecilia was not known or venerated in Rome till about the time when Pope Gelasius (496) introduced her name into his Sacramentary. In 821, however, there was an old church fallen into decay with the dedication to S. Cecilia; but Pope Paschal I dreamed that the body of the saint lay in the cemetery of S. Celestas, along with that of her husband Valerian. He accordingly looked for them and found them, or, at all events, some bodies, as was probable, in the catacombs, which he was pleased to regard as those of Cecilia nd Valerian. And he translated these relics to the church of S. Cecilia, and founded a monastery in their honor.
The story of S. Cecilia is not without beauty and merit. There was in the city of Rome a virgin named Cecilia, who was given in marriage to a youth named Valerian. She wore sackcloth next to her skin, and fasted, and invoked the saints and angels and virgins, beseeching them to guard her virginity. And she said to her husband, “I will tell you a secret if you will swear not to reveal it to anyone.” And when he swore, she added, “There is an angel who watches me, and wards off from me any who would touch me.” He said, “Dearest, if this be true, show me the angel.” “That can only be if you will believe in one God, and be baptized.”
She sent him to Pope S. Urban (223-230), who baptized him; and when he returned, he saw Cecilia praying in her chamber, and an angel by her with flaming wings, holding two crowns of roses and lilies, which he placed on their heads, and then vanished. Shortly after, Tibertius, the brother of Valerian, entered, and wondered at the fragrance and beauty of the flowers at that season of the year.
When he heard the story of how they had obtained these crowns, he also consented to be baptized. After their baptism the two brothers devoted themselves to burying the martyrs slain daily by the prefect of the city, Turcius Almachius. [There was no prefect of that name.] They were arrested and brought before the prefect, and when they refused to sacrifice to the gods were executed with the sword.
In the meantime, S. Cecilia, by preaching had converted four hundred persons, whom Pope Urban forthwith baptized. Then Cecilia was arrested, and condemned to be suffocated in the baths. She was shut in for a night and a day, and the fires were heaped up, and made to glow and roar their utmost, but Cecilia did not even break out into perspiration through the heat. When Almachius heard this he sent an executioner to cut off her head in the bath. The man struck thrice without being able to sever the head from the trunk. He left her bleeding, and she lived three days. Crowds came to her, and collected her blood with napkins and sponges, whilst she preached to them or prayed. At the end of that period she died, and was buried by Pope Urban and his deacons.
Alexander Severus, who was emperor when Urban was Pope, did not persecute the Church, though it is possible some Christians may have suffered in his reign. Herodian says that no person was condemned during the reign of Alexander, except according to the usual course of the law and by judges of the strictest integrity. A few Christians may have suffered, but there can have been no furious persecutions, such as is described in the Acts as waged by the apocryphal prefect, Turcius Almachius.
Urbanus was the prefect of the city, and Ulpian, who had much influence at the beginning of Alexander’s reign as principal secretary of the emperor and commander of the Pretorian Guards, is thought to have encouraged persecution. Usuardus makes Cecilia suffer under Commodus. Molanus transfers the martyrdom to the reign of Marcus Aurelius. But it is idle to expect to extract history from romance.
In 1599 Cardinal Paul Emilius Sfondrati, nephew of Pope Gregory XIV, rebuilt the church of S. Cecilia.
St. Cecilia is regarded as the patroness of music [because of the story that she heard heavenly music in her heart when she was married], and is represented in art with an organ or organ-pipes in her hand.
From The Lives of the Saints by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, M.A published in 1914 in Edinburgh.