On November 22, the Church remembers St. Cecilia, virgin and martyr, the patroness of music and specifically church music.
Saint Cecilia’s inclusion in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (martyrology of Jerome) indicates she has been venerated since at least the 4th century. There is not much known for sure however about the details of her life; in the 5th and 6th centuries, romanticized stories of her life became popular. The existence and location of her grave and the tombs of the other martyrs mentioned with her in the stories from the 6th century indicate a connection between the saints, but how accurately the legend describes the relationship and events in not known.
The Legend of St. Cecilia
The popular biography of St. Cecilia describes her as the well-educated, cultured daughter of a noble or senatorial family in Rome. She was a pious Christian from early in her childhood, but then as a young woman was given in marriage to a noble pagan, Valerianus (also called Valerian). Once the marriage celebration had taken place, Cecilia informed Valerianus that an angel guarded her body, and that Valerianus must respect and not violate her vow of virginity. Her husband wanted to see the angel, and Cecilia told him that he would need to be purified in order to do so. Valerianus went to be baptized by the Pope, and returned to Cecilia as a Christian. The angel then appeared to them both and crowned the two with roses and lilies.
Tiburtius, the brother of Valerianus, came to him and Cecilia and soon after became a Christian as well. The brothers, who became zealous children of faith, distributed alms and buried the bodies of the confessors who had been killed for their dedication to Christ. For this, a prefect named Turcius Almachius condemned them to death. Maximus, an officer of the prefect, was appointed to carry out the execution. Instead, he too was converted to Christianity and was martyred along with Tiburtius and Valerianus. The widowed Cecilia buried the three men together.
Cecilia’s burial of her husband, brother in law, and the officer – men condemned to death for their Christian faith – was reason to enough to condemn Cecilia. She was taken prisoner and after professing her faith, was locked in an overheated bath house at her own residence. The intent of the punishment was that she be suffocated to death inside; the vents were sealed and the heat should have been unbearable. However, the next day when the room was opened, Cecilia was not only alive and well, but kneeling in prayer and not even sweating. An executioner was ordered to behead her, but three blows from the axe didn’t succeed in severing her slender neck. Instead she lay bleeding and praying on the spot where the attempted beheading took place for 3 days before she died.
There are differing accounts as to when this took place. Some believe her martyrdom took place around the year 117, while others date it to the early or middle part of the 3rd century. As mentioned above, tradition and tombs verify the existence of the martyrs named here. The location of the tombs where the three men (Tiburtius, Valerianus, and Maximus) were buried together and Cecilia’s separate resting spot in the Catacombs at Callistus indicate some sort of connection between Cecilia and the others. The three men were remembered on April 14th, according to the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, with the octave being celebrated at the Catacombs at Callistus. In the 9th century, Cecilia’s body was moved to Rome. When her new tomb was opened in the 1500s, her body was found to be incorrupt.
However, as to the events of the popular story, the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to it as a “pious romance, like so many others compiled in the fifth and sixth centuries.” Because the story that became popular tradition surfaced long after her death, one cannot know for sure what events took place on Cecilia’s path to martyrdom.
Patroness of Music
Naming Cecilia as the patroness of music and of church music came later than the original veneration of the early Christian saint, and was based largely on the following description in the 6th century tale of her life:
“While the profane music of her wedding was heard, Cecilia was singing in her heart a hymn of love for Jesus, her true spouse.”
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the veneration of St. Cecilia grew in popularity again. This phrase boosted her popularity as a patron of musicians, particularly those who wrote and/or performed pious, reverent music.
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This article was adapted from the Catholic Encyclopedia.