The life of Saint Cecilia is a lasting testament of God’s overflowing love for those who consecrate themselves to Him, a love that transcends this earthly life.
St. Cecilia was born from a lineage of Roman aristocrats in Campus Martius, an area of ancient Rome, from 200 AD – 230 AD. Despite the pagan belief of her parents, she received Christ as her Savior and dedicated herself to a life of virginity. In spite of her vow of chastity, her parents forced her to marry Valerian, a young pagan of noble birth. On the day of their marriage celebration, during the merrymaking, St. Cecilia fervently sang, in her heart, hymns of love to her one true spouse, Jesus Christ. As the newlyweds retired to their bedchamber, St. Cecilia told Valerian that an angel of God was safeguarding her virginity. She impleaded her husband not to violate it, lest God’s fury would fall upon him. When Valerian beseeched St. Cecilia to let him see her guardian angel, she instructed him to open his eyes of faith to the one true God and receive the Sacrament of Baptism. After being baptized by Pope Urban I, Valerian saw the angel beside St. Cecilia. Valerian’s conversion led his brother, Tiburtius, to a change of heart from his sinful ways. St. Cecilia, together with Valerian and Tiburtius, served as God’s instruments for spreading Christianity until their martyrdoms.
Best known for “singing in her heart for the Lord” during her wedding day, St. Cecilia is invoked as the patron saint of music, musicians, composers, singers, and makers of musical instruments. She is also the patron saint of poets and pipe organs. The Archdioceses of Omaha in Nebraska, USA, and Albi in France, as well as the Diocese of Mar del Plata in Argentina, are under the patronage of St. Cecilia. Some legends and hagiographies suggest that St. Cecilia ’s name was a personal name or that her name etymologically means “blind,” but some sources attribute other meanings to her name, such as “lily of heaven.” Here are the 11 most important things you need to know about St. Cecilia.
#1 Saint Cecilia Died Around 222 AD – 235 AD After a Failed Decapitation
When St. Cecilia died at around the year 222 AD to 235 AD (although some accounts provide an earlier date around 177 AD), the Church was subjected to hatred and persecution by Roman officials, most especially by its prefect, Turcius Almachius. Fully aware that her acts violated Roman law, St. Cecilia never wavered in preaching the gospel and drawn more believers to the Christian faith. Eventually, Valerian and Tiburtius were arrested for their public charity and burying the bodies of Christian martyrs, brought to trial, and were beheaded for refusing to renounce their faith. Some accounts state that St. Cecilia was arrested and sentenced to death because she buried their bodies, while others state it was because she angered Almachius for giving her possessions to the poor or for her refusal to worship false gods. Initially, the soldiers took her to a sealed room to suffocate and burn her with hot vapor and toxic gases, but St. Cecilia still lived. Then, in another attempt to kill her, an executioner struck three blows to her neck as prescribed by law. When the executioner failed to sever her head from her body, he fled in fear. With a half-severed head, St. Cecilia lived for another three days, continuing to distribute her wealth to the poor. Before she died from her wounds, she asked Pope Urban I to establish her home as a church, which is where the Church of Saint Cecilia stands today.
#2 Saint Cecilia Was “Canonized” in the 3rd Century
It is likely that St. Cecilia was immediately recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. While St. Cecilia was dying from her wounds, Pope Urban I, who was the bishop of Rome from 222 AD to May 23, 230, dedicated her home as a revered structure at night and in front of St. Cecilia. The recognition of St. Cecilia as a saint was recorded in a 5th-century document, Acta of St. Cecilia. St. Cecilia was never formally canonized, as she lived in a time called “pre-congregation,” which was before the creation of today’s formal process of canonization where the Catholic Church decides whether someone is worthy of universal veneration.
#3 Saint Cecilia Is Widely Venerated in Arts, Music, and Religion
In the 4th century, the Church of Saint Cecilia was built in Trastevere, Rome, where her home previously stood. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance Period, veneration to St. Cecilia became widespread, which is evidenced by her influence in art, music, and religion. Such works of art include Chaucer’s “Second Nun’s Tale,” Dryden’s poem “A Song for St. Cecilia ’s Day,” and Stefano Maderno’s sculpture of the Saint.
#4 Saint Cecilia’s Symbol and Iconography Depict Her Playing a Musical Instrument
The symbolism around St. Cecilia focuses on musical instruments. The oldest representation of St. Cecilia is a drawing found in the wall of the Cemetery of Saint Lorenzo. Such an image contained only the martyr-crown as her attribute with her name written above it. Since the Renaissance period, she has often been depicted in statues and images as holding a palm or playing viola, a small organ, a lute, or a harp. Other paintings of St. Cecilia portrayed her playing a keyboard instrument assisted by an angel holding a musical score. She is a symbol of music’s vital role in liturgical celebrations.
#5 Saint Cecilia ’s Feast Day Celebration Is on November 22nd
St. Cecilia ’s feast day is commemorated every November 22. It has been celebrated by the Church from 545 AD, and possibly as early as during the 4th century. Her feast day is a popular occasion for organizing music festivals and concerts.
#6 Saint Cecilia ’s Remains Are in Trastevere, Rome
St. Cecilia’s remains are currently interred under the high altar of Saint Cecilia ’s Church in Trastevere, Rome.
After her death, the body of St. Cecilia was placed in a cypress casket and enclosed in a marble sarcophagus, which was kept in the Catacomb of St. Callistus. It appears that her remains were secretly moved from the Catacomb of St. Callistus to protect it from destruction brought by the Lombards. In 822 AD, Pope Pascal I wanted to inter her remains in a church dedicated to her but did not know the location of her remains. St. Cecilia appeared to him in a vision and told him that her remains were in the Catacomb of Praetextatus.
#7 The Location of Saint Cecilia’s Major Shrine Is Located in Trastevere, Rome
The principal shrine of St. Cecilia is at Saint Cecilia’s Church, which was renovated in 1599. It is one of the most popular pilgrimage sites and tourist destinations in Rome, where thousands of tourists, pilgrims, and devotees flock all year round.
#8 Saint Cecilia Is the First Incorruptible Saint
St. Cecilia is the first saint discovered to have experienced the supernatural occurrence of incorruptibility, which means that her body did not decompose after death as a sign of her holiness. During the planned restoration of the Saint Cecilia ’s Church in 1599, the body of St. Cecilia was exhumed. It was then found that her body remained incorrupt and emitted a strange and sweet-smelling odor. Such condition remained for a few days before it disintegrated due to exposure to air and other elements. Before it showed signs of decay, Renaissance sculptor Stefano Maderno was able to carve a marble statue after her incorrupt body. His masterpiece comes with a personal testimony, which states: “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.”
#9 Saint Cecilia is one of the 7 Holy Women Mentioned in the Canon of the Mass
After the consecration of the Eucharist in a Catholic mass, the priest will often mention the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, the 12 apostles, and 27 saints. In addition to St. Cecilia, St. Felicity, St. Perpetua, St. Agatha, St. Lucy, St. Agnes, and St. Anastasia are the only female saints mentioned during the Eucharistic Prayer I.
#10 Saint Cecilia’s Fame as Patroness of Music Is Closely Interwoven With Other Legends About Her
Many legends about St. Cecilia contributed to her popularity as the patroness of music. Some of those recount that pipes were played at her wedding. These were believed to be organ pipes. Thus, St. Cecilia has often been shown to be sitting next to a pipe organ. Such attribution even went to the extent of calling her as the inventor of the organ. Another story credited her survival from certain death to her songs of praise for the Lord while she was inside a sealed room for the whole day until the night when an executioner was trying to kill her.
#11 A Festival, the Oldest Musical Institution and a Line of Instruments Are Named After Saint Cecilia
The first music festival organized in honor of St. Cecilia took place in Evreux, Normandy, in 1570. Aside from that, one of the oldest musical institutions, the National Academy of St. Cecilia in Rome, also bears the name of its patroness. It was founded by a papal bull issued by Pope Sixtus V in 1585 and is still in existence today. Lastly, there is a line of violas and violins which were named after the Saint. These musical instruments, stamped with a label “St. Cécile,” were produced by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume.
St. Cecilia reciprocated the immense love of God for her through evangelizing to the people and caring for those in need. She is an embodiment of a sweet melody, which rises to the Altar of God together with the heavenly hosts and the community of saints. May her example be our guide as we continue our pilgrimage here on earth, so that we may become worthy to join in the choirs of angels in praising God.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.