As the father of Gregorian chant, Pope St. Gregory the Great was the obvious candidate for patron of singers and musicians. His position went unchallenged for 700 years until the proliferation of pipe organs in churches and a misreading of a line in the Divine Office pushed Gregory into the background and advanced St. Cecilia (3rd century; feast day November 22) as the patron of all things musical.
The line that caused the shift is found in the Office for the feast of St. Cecilia: “cantantibus organis illa in corde suo sui domino decantabat.” While the instruments were playing, she [Cecilia] would sing to her Lord in her heart. The scene describes Cecilia’s wedding banquet: while the musicians played bawdy songs, Cecilia sang in her heart hymns to Christ, her heavenly bridegroom.
Apparently readers in the 14th century read cantantibus organis as “the organ was playing” and interpreted the rest of the phrase to mean that Cecilia herself was the organist. The image of a beautiful young woman seated at a pipe organ singing sweetly to God captured the popular imagination of the faithful in a way that St. Gregory the Great never did.
Cecilia’s wedding requires a little explanation. She had made a vow to remain a virgin, but her parents insisted that Cecilia marry. Although they were Christians, they chose a pagan named Valerian as Cecilia’s husband. On the wedding night Cecilia explained to Valerian that she had promised God to remain a virgin, that she had been forced into marriage. Her Christian faith would not permit her to break her vow. Valerian was skeptical, but Cecilia urged him to go see Pope Urban who would be able to convince him of what was right.
Urban did more than persuade Valerian to respect Cecilia’s vow; he converted him to Christianity. Valerian’s conversion led his brother Tiburtius to seek out Pope Urban, and he too was baptized. Not long afterward a fresh wave of persecution swept through Rome: Cecilia, Valerian, Tiburtius and Maximus, the prison warden who had guarded Valerian and Tiburtius, were all martyred.
If you go to Rome you can see St. Cecilia’s house — it is intact beneath the Basilica of St. Cecilia in the part of town called Trastevere.
Before Constantine granted freedom to the Church, Christianity operated in secret. In Rome, generous, well-to-do Christians risked their lives by offering their homes as both church and community center. These house churches became known as tituli, a Roman term for an inscription placed upon a building to indicate who owned the property. By the year 300 there were 25 Christian tituli in Rome. One of these belonged to Cecilia.
After St. Cecilia’s martyrdom, Pope Urban had her buried in the Catacomb of St. Callixtus. Her relics remained there until the ninth century when Pope St. Paschal I (reigned 817-24) moved the bodies of St. Cecilia and Sts. Valerian, Tiburtius and Maximus to the basilica he had built over Cecilia’s house. In 1599, Cecilia’s tomb was opened and her body was found to be incorrupt. The excavators called the sculptor Stefano Maderno to the site to make a sketch of Cecilia’s body.
The martyr’s body did not remain intact: with exposure to the air, it crumbled to dust. But the life-size sculpture Maderno made from his sketch shows us what Cecilia looked like. You can see it in Rome enshrined beneath the high altar in the Basilica of St. Cecilia.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Arlington Catholic Herald and is reprinted here with kind permission. First published on CE on Nov. 18, 2004.
image: St. Cecilia’s Martyrdom by Stefano Maderno, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome/Wikimedia Commons