Revue Generale – Saint Cecilia: Her Influence on Literature and The Arts

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Cecilia, church of Saint-Alexis de Griesheim-près-Molsheim, Alsace, Bas-Rhin, France; by Ott Frères, 1914; photographed on 21 September 2016 by Ralph Hammann; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsWhile the great men who have dreamed of distinguishing their names die and are forgotten, or at least, as Juvenal said of Alexander, become the idle theme of a rhetorical recitation, those who in this world have lived and suffered for God leave behind them, through all ages, an immortal memory.

The work for which each of us has been sent into the world has been conspicuously accomplished by the saints. This makes them our rightful masters; and, while we rarely imitate them, we can at least understand that such heroism must elevate the soul, and we admire them all the more that we feel ourselves unable to follow in their steps. Nor is such a recognition a useless sentiment. From the mansion of glory whence they see all things, the saints never cease to interest themselves in the affairs of the world, and among the dogmas of the Catholic Church which our estranged brethren have rejected, the communion of saints is one of the most touching and sublime.

There is indeed between the two worlds, visible and invisible, a strange but undeniable communication. Each of us, in investigating his own soul, will find there certain phenomena which have their origin neither in ourselves nor in the outer world: sadness from no apparent cause, inexplicable sensations of internal happiness, bursts of enthusiasm or sudden inspirations which Plato attributed to superior intelligences. Many of us, recalling some miraculously escaped danger, and profoundly touched by this heavenly protection, will bear willing witness, unless checked by dread of worldly criticism, to this influence of the saints and angels on our human career. “The people,” with the good sense which so happily inspires them (at least, where the sophists have not succeeded in corrupting them) – “the people” believe in it; and when the peasant or the poor working-woman gives a name in baptism to the child just entering on the struggles of life, she believes, in her simple, lucid faith, that she is securing a patron for it. It is not in vain, they say, that a young girl is called Mary; surely she will the more readily share in the sweetness, the self-denial, the incomparable purity, of the Queen of Virgins; the name of Agnes will be a pledge of innocence; that of Theresa promises a heart of fire; that of Cecilia, a soul gentle yet strong, eager for harmony; while the name of Francis recalls heroic isolation; those of Paul and of John, indefatigable zeal and perfect charity. If it is not always thus, it is because the human soul is free to resist grace; but these occasional rebellions do not prevent a harmony between heaven and earth as mysterious as it is sure.

These thoughts have frequently passed through our mind; but one day last October, while visiting the church of Saint Cecilia in Rome, they monopolized it.

In such moments, we persuade ourselves very easily that we can express them in writing. Undoubtedly, they are not new; but, if the life of this great saint, one of the glories of Rome, is well known, it is a story which will bear repetition: really fine old melodies never lose their charm, and, if they thrill one human soul with a divine emotion, who will complain of hearing them again?

History of Saint Cecilia

In the year 250 after Christ, in the reign of Septimus Severus, at a time when the Roman Empire was still the most formidable power of the world, there lived in Rome a young girl who will be famous when the imperial glories shall be forgotten.

Beauty, the reflection of heaven in the human countenance; grace, mysterious charm whose origin is invisible; modesty, that exquisite reserve of a virgin soul; nobility, precious perfume of the past; and, above all, the power of loving, the most magnificent and the most powerful present of the Creator to the created: all these gifts were united in the daughter of Caecilius. It was an illustrious family: in the records of the Republic it counted eighteen consuls and several conquerors, nor had it degenerated under the Empire.

To-day, when the traveller, weary from a day spent in the galleries of Rome, setting forth from the city towards sunset, wanders pensively down the long Appian Way, while he contemplates with emotion the outlines of the aqueducts with their broken arches, the Sabine mountains gilded by the light, and all that celebrated landscape of the environs of Rome, majestic and melancholy as a fallen queen, he finds upon his right, rising like a great tower, the tomb of Caecilia Metella. There slept of yore the long-forgotten ancestress of her who will render immortal, for time and for eternity, the name of Caecilius.

Cecilia was eighteen. The Roman poor knew her charity. Often had they seen her in the caves of the martyrs alone, or only accompanied by a faithful servant. Her father, although he respected her religion, did not share it: he hoped, indeed, at a suitable time to marry his daughter to some distinguished husband, and to see himself, through her, live again in her beloved children. But Cecilia had raised her heart above this world, and night and day prayed that the palm of virginity she had dreamed of should not be taken from her.

He whom her parents had chosen for her seemed not unworthy of the honor. Though still a pagan, Valerian possessed at least those natural gifts which prepare the soul for faith, hope, and charity, the supernatural gifts of Christ crucified. Nevertheless, who can express the fears of the young Christian? Had not God accepted all her heart as she had offered it? Could a pagan understand this mystery, and would not this union of the soul with an invisible spouse seem a strange folly to a man still living in the world of the senses? More than one Christian soul has felt these chaste doubts. It is honorable to hesitate before making for a mortal a sacrifice for which a young girl sometimes can never console herself. Cecilia felt these terrors most acutely, but she loved God well enough to feel perfect confidence in him. So she poured forth her whole soul in prayer, and, against all hope, trusted in his aid.

So, when, towards evening, already married in the eyes of the world, she found herself alone with her husband, she said to him in that incomparable conversation whose charm has come down to us in her life:

“There is a secret, Valerian, that I wish to confide to you. I have a lover, an angel of God, who watches over me with jealous care. If you preserve inviolate my virginity, he will love you also as he loves me, and will overpower you with his favors.”

Much astonished, Valerian wished to know this angel.

“You shall see him,” said Cecilia, “when you are purified.”

“How shall I become so?”

“Go to Urban. When the poor hear my name, they will take you to his sanctuary: he will explain to you our mysteries.”

Drawn by an unknown power, the young man consented to go. We know the result of this decision – his interview with the Pope in the catacombs, his conversion, and his baptism. Still dressed in his white robe, he returned to Cecilia. He could now understand the love of the angels, and its perfect beauty. In future, he loved Cecilia as his sister in God, to whom belong the heart and mind.

In those Christian ages others loved as he did. Undoubtedly most of them carried their secret with them to the tomb; but among those whose genius has made them famous, Dante had his Beatrice; Petrarch sang of Laura: and these pure loves, unknown to the ancient pagans, and scoffed at by our modern pagans, will remain an ornament to the soul, an act of faith in its immortality, and for us who read their history a breath of heaven on earth.

No one knows what conversation took place, in those hours of rapture and prayer, between this pair, whose marriage was to be perfected in heaven; what thanksgivings they rendered to God, who in a moment transforms hearts: nor would it be easy to describe. Of all the arts, music alone might perhaps dare to attempt it, and the revelation would require the genius of Handel or Beethoven.

In his ardent zeal, Valerian, like Cecilia, understood the value of the soul.

So, when the beloved brother Tiburtius sought them, what eloquence they displayed to prove to him that his gods were only idols! Subdued by the mysterious charm of the Christian virgin, conquered by the eagerness of the convert, Tiburtius also wished to see the angel who watched over Cecilia. If for this it was necessary to be purified, purified he would be; and thus became the first conquest of his brother, who had besought God for it.

Such souls were too beautiful for pagan Rome. In the absence of Septimus Severus, Almachius, the governor, summoned Valerian and Tiburtius before his tribunal. The two young patricians avowed their faith in Christ, to the great scandal of the worldly and prosperous. Valerian went to his martyrdom as to a triumph. He went to wait for Cecilia in heaven.

Tiburtius did not forsake him. On the Appian Way, four miles from the city, they were beheaded for having dared to worship a different God from those of the Empire. Cecilia piously reclaimed their bodies, and prepared to rejoin them. Called in her turn to answer for her conduct, she disconcerted the judge. Before such purity, innocence, and heroism, entreaties, artifices, and threats failed; the daughter of Caecilius, convicted of loving the poor and a crucified God, was instantly confined in the bath-room of her own house, there to be suffocated in a hot vapor bath. But in the midst of this fiery atmosphere she remained uninjured. The stupefied jailers related how they had discovered her singing the praises of God. Such a delusion could but provoke Almachius. The executioner was summoned. With a trembling hand, he inflicted three wounds on the neck of the virgin martyr, without succeeding in severing the head. Then, terrified himself, he fled. Stretched on the flags, bathed in her blood, Cecilia lived three days. The Christians gathered round her. She was able to bid farewell to the poor, to whom she had bequeathed her property. Then, feeling her strength fail, while Urban was in the act of giving her his blessing, she drew her robe around her, and, turning her face away, gave back her soul to God.

According to her last desire, the Pope transformed the house that had witnessed her martyrdom into a church. The bath-room became a chapel; and by its arrangement bears witness to-day to the truth of the saint’s life. One can still see the mouth of the pipes which let in the vapor, covered with a grating; and on the same flags where the Roman virgin expired, the kneeling Christian can ponder in his heart the example of heroism that she has given to the world. He who has not had the good fortune to pray on the tombs of the martyrs cannot appreciate the strength one finds there, or what precepts their relics give forth. The martyrs are the incontrovertible witnesses of the value of faith, of the power of love; and it is said that their beatified spirits lend to these bones, which were their bodies, an all-powerful eloquence.

The remains of the young girl were taken down into the catacombs of Saint Callixtus, and remained there six centuries. After the invasion of the Lombards, most unhappily, all trace was lost of them till, in 822, the place where they were hidden was revealed to Pope Saint Pascal.

The long-sought coffin was placed in the basilica of Saint Cecilia, which had been repaired by the Pope’s care. It was placed under the high altar. And even in our day the custodian points out to the pilgrim a curious fresco of the thirteenth century, representing the apparition of the saint to the sleeping Pope. In 1599, Cardinal Sfondrate ordered the tomb to be opened with solemnity. To the great delight of Christian Rome, the corpse of the Roman virgin, respected by centuries, appeared, miraculously preserved.

The chaste folds of her dress were restrained by a girdle. At her feet were found the blood-stained cloths which had bound her wounds; and her arms, thrust forward, still seemed to serve as a veil. Three fingers of her right hand were open, only one of the left, as if even in dying she had wished to avow her belief in one God in three persons. Finally, so that she might not give to the world her last look, but think only of Christ, her spouse, by a supreme effort she had turned her head aside.

Thus she reposes on her bier of cypress; thus extended on the flags she had died; and thus a great artist has faithfully represented her to us. The celebrated statue of Etienne Maderno, lying on its side, full of modesty and of grace, seems the dying virgin herself; and the whiteness of the marble, which so resembles the paleness of death, adds yet more to the illusion. Seen in this honored place, in this house which was the saint’s and has become God’s, this masterpiece of Christian sculpture, admirably executed and in exquisite taste, touches the heart profoundly.

The Influence of Saint Cecilia on Literature

Such a beautiful story could not fail to be repeated. As long as the persecutions lasted, to strengthen their courage, the faithful passed from mouth to mouth these details which had been so affectionately collected. So great, indeed, was the enthusiasm for the memory of Cecilia that she obtained the great and rare honor of being mentioned in the canon of the Mass with Saints Felicitas, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, and Anastasia. Thus for fifteen centuries, throughout the Catholic world, wherever the holy sacrifice is celebrated, her name is invoked; and, truly immortal, each hour, each moment perhaps, her memory rises from earth to heaven with incense and with prayer.

Her acts, chronicled in the fifth century, have since then been the subject of several works. We shall only mention the Greek translation of Simeon Metaphrastes, the verses of Saint Adhelme and of the Venerable Bede in England, the works of Flodoard at Rheims, and Rhoban Maur. Then, during that magnificent efflorescence of philosophy and Catholic literature, we see Victor de Beauvais relate the story of Saint Cecilia; Albert the Great, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Bonaventure, preaching several sermons in her honor. In the fifteenth century, the eloquent Saint Vincent Ferrer recited her praises; but the Reformation came soon after, and it is only in Italy now that they think of the glories of Saint Cecilia.

In vain her history is its own defence; in vain may it claim in its favor the imposing testimony of Christian tradition, in the East as in the West, during fourteen centuries; in vain the liturgies of the churches of Rome, of Milan, of Toledo, of Greece, and of Gaul have inserted in the office for the 22d of November fragments of the text; in vain even the discovery of her body testified anew to its veracity. Towards the middle of the seventeenth century, the Jansenist school rejected it.

The historical works on the first centuries of Christianity which during the last forty years have been undertaken in France and Germany, by tracing out the original sources with scrupulous care, and taking advantage of monuments, have dealt justly with this excessive criticism.

But error is more prone to spread than easy to uproot. Launoy, that “great demolisher of saints,” who, in attacking the most poetic beliefs of the faithful, strayed into the road to rationalism, made a school. Even now Feller’s Dictionary of Universal Biography, and, following him (for these works usually copy each other), those of Michaud and of F. Didot, have repeated, on the authority of Tillemont and of Baillet, that the authenticity of the life of Saint Cecilia is very doubtful, although the arguments cited in support of this thesis had been successfully refuted by Laderchi early in the eighteenth century, and annihilated for ever twenty years ago by R. P. Dom Guéranger, in his excellent book on Saint Cecilia.

The touching story of Saint Cecilia must also inspire poets. Without mentioning the ancient hymns to be found in the Italian, Spanish, and Gallic liturgies, several poems in her honor may be quoted. At the time of the Renaissance, Baptiste Spagnuolo made it the subject of a real epic poem, where we find, as in the Æneid, the speeches of Venus and Juno, and the conspiracies of the inhabitants of Olympus against common mortals. The god of pagan love, accompanied by his mother, comes sadly to Juno to complain of the disdain of Cecilia, who wishes to remain a virgin. Forgetting her resentment, the wife of Jupiter inspires the father of Cecilia with the idea of uniting his daughter to a pagan. Foiled in their attempt by the conversion of Valerian, the angry goddess instigated Mars to suggest to Almachius the plan of drowning in blood this Christian band, rebels against the Olympian gods. Among the nine hundred verses may be found some fine ones, but we must confess that these unfortunate pagan reminiscences, so popular in the sixteenth century, ruin the poet’s work for us.

Happily, the Roman virgin was to have her life, her death, and her glories sung in poems of purer inspiration. Angelus Tangrinus, priest of Monte Cassino, wrote on this subject a long epithalamium, which lacks neither grace of expression nor of thought.

The English poet Pope has also written an ode to Saint Cecilia. The poem is elegantly versified, but cold and unmarked by any Christian feeling. The classic author recalls the magical effect of music in all ages, nor has he forgotten the adventure of Eurydice; he speaks with complacency of the Styx and of Phlegethon, of Ixion and of Sisyphus, of Proserpine and the Elysian Fields. Finally, feeling a pang of remorse, and remembering that he had dedicated his ode to a virgin martyr, he asserts that the poets must instantly abandon Orpheus and proclaim Cecilia the queen of music; for if the musician of Thrace drew by his music a spirit from hell, Cecilia by hers raised the soul to heaven.

Very recently, Count Anatole de Ségur has published a dramatic poem, which seems to us the finest homage that poetry has yet offered to Saint Cecilia. The style pure and musical, the interest sustained and engrossing, it merits the praises which the best judges have bestowed on it; and we should willingly quote some verses of this exquisite book, did we not prefer to leave our readers the pleasure of perusing it as a whole.

The Influence of Saint Cecilia on the Fine Arts

We have seen the story of Saint Cecilia inspire eloquence and poetry, but it was destined to exercise a still greater influence on the fine arts. There are, indeed, some general rules for these intimate relations between art and holiness that it would be well to remember. Besides, we may say that the saints were themselves powerful artists. Who has sought the ideal more eagerly than these indefatigable lovers of heavenly things? But they have not contented themselves with seeking infinite beauty in an abstract form; they have endeavored, as far as it was possible to human weakness, to realize it in their lives. As the sculptor cuts into a block of marble to render it into beautiful forms, they, with obstinate labor, have sought to model their souls, to render them more pure, less unworthy of God. The contemplation of martyrdom, so habitual to the first Christians, gave them that serene dignity now become so rare. As a bride prepares herself for the bridegroom, so did these souls of virgins, of mothers, of the young and of the old, endeavor, day by day, to grow in grace in the eyes of Jesus Christ, till the blade of the executioner harvested them for heaven. The soul, grown beautiful, transfigures in its turn the body which it animates, and the living mirror of the countenance reflects strength and gentleness, peace and ardent zeal, purity and ecstatic rapture. Thus we may fairly conclude that Christianity has offered to artists, through the saints, not only the perfection of form, but a type of human beauty elevated by an ever-constant love.

But why was Saint Cecilia singled out from such an innumerable band of the beatified to become especially dear to artists? Many others, gifted with all worldly advantages, in all the radiance of youth and beauty, died, like her, virgins and martyrs, without attaining her distinction. We will examine later the motives of the musicians in taking her for their patron. As for the artists, they had no long discussion on the causes of this secret sympathy. Each one, when he dreamed of heaven, painted Cecilia, saying to himself, probably, that there was not in the world a young girl’s face which could so perfectly express the rapture of the soul listening to ineffable harmony.

It would require time to glance even hastily over the long gallery of pictures of which our saint has been the subject. We will only mention the most celebrated. It is probable that many, scattered through the many galleries of Europe, have escaped us; but we wish only to discuss those which we have appreciated with our own eyes, and, also, the limits of this article would prevent our attempting to mention all.

In order to preserve some regularity in this examination, and that it may not become an adventurous journey through all ages and countries in search of pictures of Saint Cecilia, we will separate these works into three classes, and, according to their nature and their predominant tendencies, we will class them, one by one, in the sensualistic, rationalistic, and mystical schools. Nevertheless, we must say that here, as in all other classification, the confines of each class are very apt to mingle with each other. Sometimes, indeed, in the same picture one figure will express sensuality and the others religious emotion.

But let us render judgment on the entire effect of the picture and its predominant tendency. We must repeat here that in all artistic works we note two things: first, the idea of the artist, and, in consequence, the order of psychological effect – sensual pleasures, spiritual joy, or heartfelt rapture – which the picture gives rise to in the souls of those who behold it; secondly, the execution, the dexterity, more or less perfect, with which the idea has been expressed, and, consequently, the greater or less satisfaction felt by connoisseurs, whom a special education has fitted to appreciate the technical merits or faults of a picture. These are two widely different points of view; and, to be just, one should specify from which standpoint a picture is judged, for it might easily happen that the spirit of a picture would be really beautiful and the execution very feeble; the coloring perhaps unpleasing, the perspective faulty, or even the drawing incorrect.

First, The sensual school. Among the greatest geniuses, Rubens, perhaps, falls oftenest into sensualism. It is to the senses, indeed, that he usually addresses himself; hence the vividness of his coloring, the brilliancy of the flesh, which seems palpitating with life and ready to rebound under the critic’s finger. But, indeed, except “The Descent from the Cross” and “The Elevation of the Cross,” nothing could be less religious than most of his religious pictures. In vain his “Saint Cecilia” passionately raises her eyes; her plumpness and her dress wake only worldly thoughts. Others may admire the intensity of the flesh tints, the lustre of the robes. We think such exuberant health little suited to the young Christian who watched and fasted the more entirely to give herself up to prayer. As for the pouting cherubs which frolic round her, they are not adapted for inspiring heavenly aspirations.

But let us look no longer to the sensual school for a type of beauty which it cannot give us. Let us see how Saint Cecilia has been understood by those artists who, without troubling themselves much to express Christian ideas, have, at least, endeavored to satisfy the intelligence and to appeal to the mind through the eyes.

Second, The rationalistic school. Of all the painters whom we class under the name of the rationalistic school (that is, spiritual without being Christian), Domenichino is the most celebrated, or, at least, the one who has consecrated the most important works to the glory of Saint Cecilia. His frescoes in the church of Saint Louis des Français, at Rome, are considered classics. There we see Saint Cecilia distributing, from the terrace of her house, her garments to a crowd of poor people, who, in picturesque groups, are disputing over them. Then, Almachius, on his judgment-seat, commanding, by an imperative gesture, the saint to sacrifice to the idols. But she expresses with dignity her horror; and it is in vain for the priests to offer a goat, and in vain incense smokes on a tripod before a statue of Jupiter. Here Cecilia dies, surrounded by kneeling women; some watching her, others putting the blood from her wounds into vases by the aid of sponges. In the meanwhile, the Pope, Urban, gives her his blessing, and an angel brings her, from heaven, a crown and a palm. In yet another fresco, an angel presents crowns to Cecilia and Valerian. And last, on the ceiling is painted the apotheosis of the saint supported in the arms of angels, and borne to heaven.

But Domenichino’s picture in the great gallery of the Louvre is more generally known than the frescoes of Saint Louis. Here Saint Cecilia is standing, and while she sings the glories of God, accompanying herself on a violoncello, an angel offers her a music-book. But she does not heed it, and raises to heaven eyes that seem just melting in tears. Undoubtedly the head is truly dignified and inspired, but we must regret that the religious sentiment is not more manifest in this fine picture, for without the nimbus round the head one might take the saint for a sibyl.

Guido, with his usual grace, has represented Cecilia dying, lying on her side, as in Maderno’s statue. She has, however, her arms crossed upon her breast, and the head is not turned aside; two women staunch her bleeding wounds with cloths, and in the background an angel holds a palm, which he hastens to give her.

To Annibal Carracci is usually attributed the Saint Cecilia which is to be found in the Museum of the Capitol at Rome. At all events, one easily recognizes, by a certain shade of naturalism, a work of the Bologna school. As before, the saint is singing and accompanying herself on an organ; but here, we see beside her the Blessed Virgin holding the infant Jesus in her arms, and a Dominican priest – expressive faces, apparently enraptured with the celestial concert.

The majority of French artists, above all in the reign of Louis XIV, belong to the rationalistic school. Their composition is clever, their drawing correct, the style dignified, sometimes almost theatrical. They are indeed almost always natural, but with the exception of some of Lesueur’s, one rarely perceives in their works the inspiration of a superhuman emotion. There are in the galleries of French art in the Louvre two pictures which do not contradict these observations. Jacques Stella, who lived during the first half of the seventeenth century, has left us a Saint Cecilia. She is standing playing on an organ, her eyes modestly lowered, while two angels are singing at her side. She wears a wreath of roses in her hair; but, more charming than inspired, resembles the portrait of a young girl of the age of Louis XIII with a taste for music.

Mignard’s picture is, however, more celebrated. Of finished execution, perfect in detail, so that even the glimpse of landscape seen through the pillars of the portico is treated with great care, it inspires artists with admiration also by the beauty of its coloring. The saint, richly dressed, and wearing a large turban, which gives her a very oriental look, is seated playing on the harp. No wonder that this picture pleased the king, or that he desired it to adorn his collection. Unfortunately, all this magnificence fails to move us. We see the Persian sibyl executing a prelude to her oracles, but nothing reminds us of Rome and the early martyrs, and neither in the piteous figures nor in those up-raised eyes can we trace any Christian feeling.

Third, the mystical school. Beyond the region of the senses and of that which usually bounds the human spirit, opens the supernatural and divine world. One cannot enter here without a pure heart, and to enjoy its beauty we must by prayer and humility, those two wings of the soul, rise above ourselves and transitory things. Thus the mystical school of art, disdained by hypercritical connoisseurs, requires a sort of moral preparation, and might write above its door, as a salutary warning, “Let none enter here save him who loves God entirely.” It is here that we must finally seek the type of Saint Cecilia in all its supernatural beauty: a human face illuminated by ecstasy.

We shall only mention, for the satisfaction of antiquaries, the Saint Cecilia of Cimabue at the entrance to the magnificent Uffizi Gallery at Florence. This also is a type of the Byzantine virgin, not however without a certain majesty in its stiffness. Far more celestial is the impression left on us by the Saint Cecilia of blessed Fra Angelico da Fiesole, in that wonderful picture of the “Incoronazione della Vergine,” which so worthily commences the great gallery of the Louvre. Cecilia is in the foreground, close to Saint Magdalen, recognizable by her long golden hair. Entirely absorbed in the contemplation of Christ, and indifferent to the world, she turns away, so that one sees only the long blue mantle and the crown of roses, emblems of virginity, which encircles her head. Nevertheless, the lost profile which we can only glance at is not without grace, and suggests a countenance radiant with love and purity.

To the mystical school also may be attributed five little pictures by Pinturicchio in the gallery at Berlin, which were much admired by Dom Guéranger. Undoubtedly, Pinturicchio has none of Cimabue’s stiffness; we willingly acknowledge his ease and natural grace; but how far he is from the angelic touch of Beato, or the perfection of Raphael!

Perhaps Bologna contains the largest array of fine pictures. In the chapel of Saint Cecilia, behind Saint Giacomo Maggiore, ten admirable frescoes represent the entire history of Saint Cecilia. By the hand of Francesco Francia himself, we have her marriage with Valerian, and her funeral; six other scenes were painted by his pupils, G. Francia, Chiodarolo, and Aspertini. The two representing Pope Urban instructing Tiburtius, and the virgin distributing her property to the poor, are considered Lorenzo Casta’s masterpieces. But it is to the Museum one must turn to admire the Saint Cecilia of Raphael, one of the most beautiful of pictures, and certainly the most splendid homage offered by art to the Roman virgin. It was to be seen in Paris from 1798 till 1815, when it was taken back to Bologna; and it is well worth a voyage across the Alps. Letting fall the organ she still retains in her hands, Saint Cecilia stands, seeming to listen in ecstasy to the concert of angels, contemplating this transporting choir, which the artist has revealed in the yawning skies. At her side stand Saint John, Saint Paul, Saint Magdalen, and Saint Augustine; at her feet lie the broken instruments of earthly music. Apparently Raphael wished to recapitulate on this sublime page the highest precepts of philosophy. Here is typified by the instruments of pleasure the world of the senses, whose bonds we must break and free ourselves from. But if it is well to know something of this material world, the realm of the human intellect, it is necessary sometimes to know, like Cecilia, how to raise one’s self still higher and prepare to listen to the ineffable music of the soul. Do we accuse ourselves of being sinners? Here is Magdalen with her vase of ointment, and behind her Augustine. They may well inspire us with hope, they also have experienced the temptations of the senses and the proud rebellions of the will, but there they stand to prove that humility and penitence may conquer these. Do you say that, obliged to lead an active life, you daily find yourself overwhelmed by a thousand cares? Behold Saint Paul, the apostle of nations, who also experienced pain, labor, shipwrecks, and dangers of all kinds; nevertheless, leaning on his sword, he meditates. Finally, are you philosophers or theologians? Behold Saint John, the master of you all. Radiant, he contemplates the enraptured saint, and seems to say, “Forget yourselves for a space; turn from the sound of human words; like Cecilia, listen to the celestial harmonies of the Word. Look at this young girl. She has known how to find love, peace, and happiness.”

According to M. Passavant, it was also the history of Saint Cecilia, and not the martyrdom of Saint Felicitas, as is usually believed, which formed the subject of Raphael’s fresco, formerly to be admired in the chapel “De la Magliano” at Trastavere. In 1830, an unknown vandal of a proprietor bethought himself of cutting a huge gash through the centre in order to place a “pew, where he could hear Mass without mingling with his servants!” Thus mutilated, the fresco was transferred to canvas in 1835, and has probably been bought by some more enlightened connoisseur; but the most enthusiastic appreciation cannot now repair such outrages.

Among the moderns, we shall only mention, in Germany, the Saint Cecilia of Molitor, whose attitude reminds us much of Raphael’s. Certainly it has not the same nobility of style, but we find there the charming grace of the Düsseldorf school. In France, we may mention with praise the Saint Cecilia of Paul Delaroche. Seated on an antique chair, dressed in a robe falling in long folds, the virgin with one hand restrains her mantle, bordered with a fringe of gold, with the other she touches a little organ presented to her by two kneeling angels, under the semblance of pure-faced boys. This sweet picture, full of poetry and grace, is a happy contrast to some others, and makes us the more regret the painter of this Christian martyr, so beautiful and chaste – night brooding on the face of the waters.

But of one art Saint Cecilia is especially the patron, and that is music. Why the Roman virgin was chosen from so many others, would be very difficult to explain with any precision. The mystic sense of the tradition which makes Cecilia the queen of harmony is now lost, and on this point we are reduced to conjectures. Let us hope, however, that the conjectures we shall advance may seem probable after a little reflection.

Undoubtedly Cecilia, the daughter of a noble family, enjoying all worldly advantages and instructed to please, was taught music. Without doubt, also, she consecrated to God a talent acquired for worldly ends; and in the meetings of the faithful in the catacombs she must have taken part in the psalms and canticles. But the most weighty argument in favor of this glorious patronage which the Christian ages have ascribed to our saint, is the sentence from her life incorporated in the Roman Litany: “Cantantibus organis, Caecilia Domino decantabat: Fiat cor meum immaculatum ut non confundar.”

In January, 1732, a Jansenist critic, otherwise entirely unknown, remarked, in the Mercury of France, “that the selection of Saint Cecilia as the patron of music was not a good choice.” Indeed, he says, a little farther on, “we can easily see that this saint was very insensible to the charms of music; for on her wedding day, while they played on several instruments, she remained absorbed in prayer.” Poor man! he could not get beyond the outer husks of things, and the material side of art. He did not know that elevated natures naturally respond to human music by prayer, that heavenly music. And undoubtedly, he had never heard those sublime melodies which a loving soul sings to itself, and of which the most beautiful concerts of this world are but a feeble echo.

But the Christian people had a better inspiration. They understood that music, and, above all, religious music – the most beautiful of all, whose highest aim is to free us from the senses and lift us out of ourselves, in order to raise us to God – might well be protected by this young girl, whose soul had become like a lyre, from which the faintest breath will wake harmonious vibrations, and who, virgin and martyr – while for three days she lay on the bloody flags, seemed in a long song of love to render back her spirit.

In Rome and Italy, musical societies early placed themselves under the patronage of Saint Cecilia. We find one in France, founded in 1571, at Evreux, “by the choristers of the cathedral church, and other pious inhabitants of this city, for the purpose of learning music.” Henry III gave letters patent to the “Society of Madame Saint Cecilia,” established at Paris, in the church of the “Grands Augustins,” by zealous artists and amateurs of music. These societies disappeared with many others in the revolutionary troubles, but their charitable intentions have been revived. Every year, on the 22d of November, the Association of Musical Artists gives in the great church of Saint Eustache at Paris a musical mass, whose proceeds are destined to relieve their sick and poor members. Undoubtedly one might often wish more religious music. These pretended masses are far too theatrical to seem much inspired when compared to the oratorios which Handel and Beethoven have dedicated to Saint Cecilia. Nor is it there that one could find pious meditation. Nevertheless, we may still rejoice that at a time when materialism has corrupted so many hearts, these solemnities still attract crowds. Indeed, one may say of music as Tertullian said of the soul, that it is naturally Christian. To draw the soul from all that occupies it, weighs on it, and destroys it, to sustain it by prolonged melody, inspiring dreams of infinity, is also to elevate it above itself, and gently prepare it for the broken utterances of prayer.

We know, then, that Saint Cecilia is powerful enough in heaven to turn an idler into yet another Christian. Never in vain was she approached while on earth, or her memory celebrated since she has reigned in heaven. She has held her court of littérateurs, poets, painters, and musicians, men with impassioned hearts, which she has gently drawn toward heaven. For each she has obtained some special grace. Let others come; for the treasures she distributes are never exhausted.

In the early Christians who read her history, she inspired love of purity and a martyr’s strength; to the artists who have striven to represent her, she has revealed a type of beauty unknown on earth. For the most humble of her servants, she has smiles which heal the soul wonderfully. Who has inspired more masterpieces? who has been more loved than this virgin? who is more alive than she, who has been dead for sixteen centuries? But, martyr to love, she died for Christ. Is this really dying?

– text taken from the article “Saint Cecilia: Her Influence on Literature and The Arts”, author unknown though it is credited to the Revue Generale; the article appeared in the July 1871 edition of The Catholic World magazine