The Story of Saint Cecilia

PureInsight | June 27, 2005

[] Saint Cecilia was the first martyr whose body remains incorruptible. She has been regarded as patroness of church music. No one is able to ascertain Saint Cecilia's actual birthday, but it is believed that she died in the year 177 A.D. According to church history, Cecilia was a maiden of noble birth. At an early age, she dedicated her life to God with a vow of chastity. But her family made her marry a young noble named Valerian.

Portrait of St. Cecilia

On her wedding day, she prayed to the Lord and asked Him to protect her virginity. History records, "The day on which the wedding was to be held arrived and while musical instruments were playing she was singing in her heart to God alone saying: Make my heart and my body pure that I may not be confounded" (McKinnon 46). St. Cecilia's prayers were answered, and Valerian was willing to take her as his wife without forcing her to break her vow. Not only did he accept her vow of chastity, he and his brother Tiburtius both converted to Christianity and were baptized by Pope Urban I.

At that time, Christianity was still illegal in Rome. Both Valerian and his brother Tiburtius were soon discovered to be Christians and were martyred. Cecilia was discovered soon after that and met a similar fate. It required two attempts before her executioners could kill her. They first locked her inside the bathroom of her own home and tried to suffocate her by steam. When she emerged from the bath unharmed, she was then beheaded. The stroke of the axe failed to sever her head completely from her body, however, and she lingered on for three excruciating days. During that time, she saw to the disbursement of her assets to help the poor, and she donated her home to the ecclesiastical authorities to be used as a church.

It was believed that St. Cecilia was buried in the Catacomb of Callistus after she was martyred in 177 A.D. Seven centuries later, Pope Pascal I (817-824) built the Church of St. Cecilia in the Trastevere quarter of Rome and wished to transfer her relics there. At first, however, he could not find them and believed that they had been stolen. In a vision he saw St. Cecilia, who exhorted him to continue his search, as he had already been very near to her grave. He therefore renewed his quest; and soon the body of the martyr, draped in expensive gold brocade and with the cloths soaked in her blood at her feet, was actually found in the Catacomb of Prætextatus instead. Her relics, with those of Valerian (her husband), Tiburtius, and Maximus (a Rome officer), and Popes Urbanus and Lucius, were taken up by Pope Paschal I, and reburied under the high altar of St. Cecilia in Trastevere.

The next time anyone disturbed Cecilia's sleep was almost 800 years later. During the restoration of the church in the year 1599, Cardinal Sfondrato was involved in restoring the church and had initiated some excavations under the main altar, in the hope of finding the bodies of Cecilia and her male martyrs interred there by Paschal. On October 20, 1599, Sfondrato's workmen brought to light the marble coffin of the saint. In the presence of several witnesses, the cardinal himself opened the little cypress-wood inner coffin, revealing the saint's body still wrapped finding it still clothed in tissue of gold, lying modestly on its side, the neck wound covered with a golden amulet.

Pope Clement commissioned an elaborate silver coffin adorned with gold to contain Cecilia's cypress-wood coffin and a still larger marble one to hold them. Out of the respect for the saint, he refused to allow a more detailed examination of the martyr's remains.

The reappearance of the relics of St. Cecilia created a sensation in Rome. The enthusiasm of the crowds that thronged the basilica was so great that Cardinal Sfondrato was almost crushed to death. Pope Clement finally had to send in his Swiss Guards to restore order. On November 22, 1599, Clement came to the basilica to celebrate a Solemn High Mass in honor of the saint's feast-day. After the Mass Cecilia's body was re-interred beneath the high altar, in the same place where it had been found.

When the tomb of the saint opened in 1599, Stefano Maderno(1566-1636), who created the fountains in St Peter's Piazza, was then commissioned to sculpt what he saw. His inscription says: "Behold the body of the most holy virgin, Cecilia, whom I myself saw lying uncorrupt in her tomb. I have in this marble expressed for thee the same saint in the very same posture and body." She is shown lying on her right side with her head facing downwards and with a scarf over her hair. Both her arms are extended towards her knees and the fingers of the right hand are also extended. The body was found in the position represented by the sculptor.

Marble statue of St. Cecilia

[1] The Incorruptibles: A Study of the Incorruption of the Bodies of Various Catholic Saints and Beati by Joan Carroll Cruz, ISBN: 0895550660

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