Virgin Saints and Martyrs – Saint Caecilia

Saint CaeciliaIn 1876, when I was writing the November volume of my “Lives of the Saints,” and had to deal with the Acts of Saint Caecilia, I saw at once that they were eminently untrustworthy – they were, in fact, a religious romance, very similar to others of the like nature; and my mistrust was deepened when I found that the name of Caecilia did not appear in either the Roman Kalendar of the fourth century, nor in the Carthagenian of the fifth.

The Acts were in Greek, and it was not till the time of Pope Gelasius (496) that her name appeared at all prominently; then he introduced it into his Sacramentary.

The Acts as we have them cannot be older than the fifth century, and contain gross anachronisms. They make her suffer when Urban was Pope, under an apocryphal prefect, Turcius Almachius; but the date of Pope Urban was in the reign of Alexander Severus, who did not persecute the Church at all – who, in fact, favoured the Christians.

But although there is so much to make one suspicious as to the very existence of Saint Caecilia, a good many facts have been brought to light which are sufficient to show that it was the stupidity of the composer of the apocryphal Acts which has thrown such doubt over the Virgin Martyr.

If we eliminate what is obviously due to the romantic imagination of the author of the Acts in the fifth century, the story reduces itself to this.

Caecilia was a maiden of noble family, and her parents were of senatorial rank. From her earliest youth she was brought up as a Christian, but that her father was one is doubtful, as he destined his daughter to become the wife of an honourable young patrician named Valerian, who was, however, a pagan.

Caecilia would not hear of the marriage on this account; and Valerian, who loved her dearly, by her advice went to Urban the Pope, who was living in concealment in the Catacomb in the Appian Way, to learn something about the Faith. Valerian took with him his brother, Tiburtius; they were both convinced, were baptised, and, as they confessed Christ, suffered martyrdom; and the officer who arrested them, named Maximus, also believed and underwent the same fate. All three were laid in the Catacomb of Praetextatus.

Caecilia, in the meantime, had remained unmolested in her father’s house in Rome.

The Prefect resolved to have her put to death privately, as she belonged to an illustrious family, perhaps also in consideration for her father, still a heathen.

He gave orders that the underground passages for heating the winter apartments should be piled with wood, and an intense fire made, and that the room in which Caecilia was should be closed, so that she should die of suffocation. This was done, but she survived the attempt. This is by no means unlikely. The walls were heated by pipes through which the hot air passed, and there was a thick pavement of concrete and mosaic between the fires and the room. Everything depended on the chamber being shut up, and there being no air admitted; but it is precisely this latter requisite that could not be assured. In her own house, where the slaves were warmly attached to her, nothing would be easier than to withdraw the cover of the opening in the ceiling, by means of which ventilation was secured. By some means or other air was admitted, and although, doubtless, Caecilia suffered discomfort from the great heat, yet she was not suffocated.

The chamber was the Calidarium, or hot-air bath attached to the palace, and in the church of Saint Caecilia in Trastevere a portion of this is still visible.

As the attempt had failed, the Prefect sent an executioner to kill her with the sword.

Her beauty, youth, and grace, so affected the man that, although he smote thrice at her throat, he did not kill her. It was against the law to strike more than thrice, so he left her prostrate on the mosaic floor bathed in her blood.

No sooner was the executioner gone than from all sides poured in her relatives, the slaves, and the faithful to see her, and to receive the last sigh of the Martyr. They found her lying on the marble pavement, half conscious only, and they dipped their kerchiefs in her blood, and endeavoured to staunch the wounds in her throat.

She lingered two days and nights in the same condition, and without moving, hanging between life and death; and then – so say the Acts – Pope Urban arrived, braving the risk, from his hiding-place, to say farewell to his dear daughter in the Faith. Thereupon she turned to him, commended to him the care of the poor, entreated her father to surrender his house to the Church, and expired. In the Acts she addresses the Pope as “Your Beatitude,” an expression used in the fifth century, and certainly not in the third.

She died, as she had lain, her face to the ground, her hands and arms declining on the right, as she rested on that side.

The same night her body was enclosed in a cypress chest, and was conveyed to the cemetery of Saint Callixtus, where Urban laid it in a chamber “near that in which reposed his brother prelates and martyrs.”

So far the legend. Now let us see whether it is possible to reconcile it with history.

In the first place, it is to be observed that the whole of the difficulty lies with Urban being Pope. If we suppose that in the original Acts the name was simply “Urban the Bishop,” and that the remodeller of the Acts took the liberty of transforming him into Pope Urban, the difficulty vanishes at once. He may have been some regionary bishop in hiding. He may not have been a bishop at all, but a priest; and the writer, ignorant of history, and knowing only of the Urbans as Popes, may have given rise to all this difficulty by transforming him into a Pope.

Now, in the Acts, the Prefect does not speak of the Emperor, but of “Domini nostri invictissimi principes” (our Lords the unconquered Princes). The Emperor, therefore, cannot have been Alexander. Now, Ado the martyrologist, in or about 850, must have referred to other Acts than those we possess, for he enters Saint Caecilia as having suffered under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus – that is to say, in 177. This explains the Prefect referring to the orders of the Princes.

If we take this as the date, and Urban as being a priest or bishop of the time, the anachronisms are at an end.

That the Acts should have been in Greek is no proof that they were not drawn up in Rome, for Greek was the language of the Church there, and indeed the majority of the most ancient inscriptions in the Catacombs are in that language.

So much for the main difficulties. Now let us see what positive evidences we have to substantiate the story.

The excavation of the Cemetery of Saint Callixtus, which was begun in 1854, and was carried on with great care by De Rossi, led to the clearing out of a crypt in which the early Bishops of Rome had been laid. The bodies had been removed when Paschal I. conveyed so many of those of the saints and martyrs into Rome, on account of the ruin into which the Catacombs had fallen, but their epitaphs remained, all of the third century, and in Greek; among these, that of Urbanus, 230; and it was perhaps precisely this fact which led the recomposer of the Acts to confound the Urban of Saint Caecilia’s time with the Pope. The first Pope known to have been laid there was Zephyrinus, in 218. Here also was found an inscription set up by Damasus I., recording how that the bodies of bishops and priests, virgins and confessors lay in that place.

Now by a narrow, irregular opening in the rock, entrance is obtained to a further chamber, about twenty feet square, lighted by a luminare in the top, or an opening to the upper air cut in the tufa. This, there can be no manner of doubt, is the crypt in which reposed the body of Saint Caecilia.

In the Acts it was said to adjoin that in which were laid the Bishops of Rome; though, as these bishops were of later date than Caecilia, if we take her death to have been in 177, their crypt must have been dug out or employed for the purpose of receiving their bodies at a later period.

Again, it is an interesting fact, that here a number of the tombstones that have been discovered bear the Caecilian name, showing that this cemetery must have belonged to that gens or clan. Not only so, but one is inscribed with that of Septimus Praetextatus Caecilianus, a servant of God during thirty years. It will be remembered that Praetextatus was the name of the brother of Valerian, who was betrothed to Caecilia, and it leads one to suspect that the families of Valerian and of Caecilia were akin.

The chapel or crypt contains frescoes. In the luminare is painted a female figure with the hands raised in prayer. Beneath this a cross with a lamb on each side. Below are three male figures with the names Sebastianus, Curinus (Quirinus), and Polycamus. Sebastian is doubtless the martyr of that name whose basilica is not far off. Quirinus, who has the corona of a priest, is the bishop and martyr of Siscia, whose body was brought in 420 to Rome. Of Polycamus nothing is known, save that his relics were translated in the ninth century to Saint Prassede.

Against the wall lower down is a seventh-century representation of Saint Caecilia, richly clothed with necklace and bracelets; below a head of Christ of Byzantine type, and a representation of Saint Urban. But these paintings, which are late, have been applied over earlier decoration; behind the figure of Saint Caecilia is mosaic, and that of Christ is painted on the old porphyry panelling. There are in this crypt recesses for the reception of bodies, and near the entrance an arched place low enough to receive a sarcophagus; and there are traces as though the face had at one time been walled up.

The walls are covered with graffiti, or scribbles made by pilgrims. An inscription also remains, to state that this was the sepulchre of Saint Caecilia the Martyr, but this inscription is not earlier than the ninth or tenth century.

In 817 Paschal I. was Pope, and in the following year he removed enormous numbers of the remains of martyrs from the Catacombs into the churches of Rome, because the condition into which these subterranean cemeteries were falling was one of ruin. They had been exposed to the depredations of the Lombards, and then to decay. Some had fallen in, and were choked.

Precisely this Catacomb had been plundered by the Lombard king, Astulf, and it was not known whether he had carried off the body of Saint Caecilia or not. All those of the former popes Paschal removed.

In 844, however, Paschal pretended that he had seen Saint Caecilia in a dream, who had informed him that she still lay in her crypt in the Catacomb of Saint Callixtus. No reliance can be placed on the word of a man so unprincipled as Paschal. At this very time two men of the highest rank, who were supporters of Louis the Pious, the Emperor, had been seized, dragged to the Lateran Palace, their eyes plucked out, and then beheaded. The Pope was openly accused of this barbarous act. The Emperor sent envoys to examine into it, but Paschal threw all sorts of difficulties in their way. He refused to produce the murderers; he asserted that they were guilty of no crime in killing these unfortunate men, and he secured the assassins by investing them with a half-sacred character as servants of the Church of Saint Peter. Himself he exculpated from all participation in the deed by a solemn, expurgatorial oath. Such was the man who pretended to visions of the saints. His dream was an afterthought. In the clearing out of the crypt of Saint Caecilia, the wall that had closed the grave was broken through, and the cypress chest was disclosed. Whereupon Paschal promptly declared he had dreamt that so it would be found. The body was found in the coffin, incorrupt, and at its feet were napkins rolled together and stained with blood.

This discovery, which seems wholly improbable, is yet not impossible. If the arcosolium had been hermetically sealed up, the body need not have fallen to dust; and, as a fact, De Rossi did discover, along with Marchi, in 1853, a body in the Via Appia, without the smallest trace of alteration and decay in the bones.

Paschal himself relates that he lined the chest with fringed silk, and covered the body with a silk veil. It was then enclosed in a sarcophagus of white marble, and laid under the high altar of the Church of Saint Caecilia in Trastevere.

This church has been made out of the old house of Saint Caecilia, and to this day, notwithstanding rebuildings, it bears traces of its origin.

Nearly eight hundred years after this translation, Sfondrati, cardinal of Saint Caecilia, being about to carry on material alterations in the basilica, came on the sarcophagus lying in a vault under the altar. It was not alone – another was with it.

In the presence of witnesses one of these was opened. It contained a coffin or chest of cypress wood. The Cardinal himself removed the cover. First was seen the costly lining and the silken veil, with which nearly eight centuries before Paschal had covered the body. It was faded, but not decayed, and through the almost transparent texture could be seen the glimmer of the gold of the garments in which the martyr was clad. After a pause of a few minutes, the Cardinal lifted the veil, and revealed the form of the maiden martyr lying in the same position in which she had died on the floor of her father’s hall. Neither Urban nor Paschal had ventured to alter that. She lay there, clothed in a garment woven with gold thread, on which were the stains of blood; and at her feet were the rolls of linen mentioned by Paschal, as found with the body. She was lying on her right side, the arms sunk from the body, her face turned to the ground; the knees slightly bent and drawn together. The attitude was that of one in a deep sleep. On the throat were the marks of the wounds dealt by the clumsy executioner.

Thus she had lain, preserved from decay through thirteen centuries.

When this discovery was made, Pope Clement VIII was lying ill at Frascati, but he empowered Cardinal Baronius and Bosio, the explorer of the Catacombs, to examine into the matter; and both of these have left an account of the condition in which the body was found. For five weeks all Rome streamed to the church to see the body; and it was not until Saint Caecilia’s Day that it was again sealed up in its coffin and marble sarcophagus.

Cardinal Sfondrati gave a commission to the sculptor Maderna to reproduce the figure of the Virgin Martyr in marble in the attitude in which found, and beneath this is the inscription: – “So I show to you in marble the representation of the most holy Virgin Caecilia, in the same position in which I myself saw her incorrupt lying in her sepulchre.”

A woodcut was published at the time of the discovery figuring it, but this is now extremely scarce.

In the second sarcophagus were found the bones of three men; two, of the same age and size, had evidently died by decapitation. The third had its skull broken, and the abundant hair was clotted with blood, as though the martyr had been beaten to death and his skull fractured with the plumbatae or leaded scourges.

The Acts of Saint Caecilia expressly say that this was the manner of death of Maximus. The other two bodies were doubtless those of Valerian and Tiburtius.

Of the statue by Maderna, Sir Charles Bell says: “The body lies on its side, the limbs a little drawn up; the hands are delicate and fine – they are not locked, but crossed at the wrists; the arms are stretched out. The drapery is beautifully modelled, and modestly covers the limbs…. It is the statue of a lady, perfect in form, and affecting from the resemblance to reality in the drapery of the white marble, and the unspotted appearance of the statue altogether. It lies as no living body could lie, and yet correctly, as the dead when left to expire – I mean in the gravitation of the limbs.”

Saint Caecilia is associated with music: she is regarded as the patroness of the organ. This is entirely due to the highly imaginative Acts of the Fifth and Sixth Century.

“Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees uprooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Caecilia rais’d the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d,
Mistaking earth for heaven.”

So sang Dryden. Chaucer has given the Legend of Saint Caecilia as the Second Nun’s Tale in the Canterbury Pilgrimage.

There is a marvellous collection of ancient statues in Rome, in the Torlonia Gallery. It was made by the late Prince Torlonia. Unhappily, he kept three sculptors in constant employ over these ancient statues, touching them up, adding, mending, altering. It is a vast collection, and now the Torlonia family desire to sell it; but no one will buy, for no one can trust any single statue therein; no one knows what is ancient and what is new. The finest old works are of no value, because of the patching and correcting to which they have been subjected.

It is the same with the Acts of the Martyrs: they have been tinkered at and “improved” in the fifth and sixth centuries, and even later, no doubt with the best intention, but with the result that they have – or many of them have – lost credit altogether.

What a buyer of statuary from the Torlonia Gallery would insist on doing, would be to drag the statues out into the sunshine and go over them with a microscope and see where a piece of marble had been added, or where a new face had been put on old work. Then he would be able to form a judgment as to the value of the statue or bust. And this is precisely the treatment to which the legends of the martyrs have to be subjected. But this treatment tells sometimes in their favour. Narratives that at first sight seem conspicuously false or manufactured, will under the critical microscope reveal the sutures, and show what is old and genuine, and what is adventitious and worthless.

– text and illustration taken from Virgin Saints and Martyrs, by Sabine Baring-Gould, F Anger, illustrator, published in New York, 1901