Saints of the Day – Cecilia of Rome

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 CommonsArticle

(also known as Caecilia, Celia, Cecily)

2nd-3rd century (?). Cecilia is another of the problem saints, though greatly revered from a very early time. Her name is even mentioned in the canon of the first Eucharistic Prayer together with several other saints with questionable elements in their stories.

First: “Cecilia, though wedded, according to Roman law, to a nobleman by the name of Valerian, is always listed as a virgin, as well as a martyr, because her husband respected her private vow to become the bride of Christ and never exercised his marital rights” (Keyes).

Second: The Latin of first words of antiphon at Lauds on her feast day are `cantantibus organis,’ so since the 16th century she is depicted as playing an organ and is the patron of church music and musicians. But it means music made in her heart to God at her wedding to Valerian, not that she herself played her own wedding music on the organ. The image is particularly anachronistic because she would not be playing the pipe organ with which we are familiar but an instrument similar to a calliope, which the early Christians would have associated with the Roman circus and spectacles. Therefore, she would have been more likely to trample such an instrument underfoot than to play it.

Third: She is commonly listed as a martyr, but there is no evidence of her martyrdom in Rome.

Cecilia is not mentioned in the early Deposito Martyrum of the 4th century, nor any of the early saints who were especially interested in the martyrs (e.g., Saints Ambrose, Jerome, Damasus, and Prudentius). The first mentioned of her name comes about the year 545 when the Passion of Saint Cecilia was written. The author of her Life may be an African refugee who came to Rome c.488. He uses the argumentation of Augustine and Tertullian that Saint Valerian and his brother Saint Tiburtius were real martyrs, but Saint Cecilia is unconnected to them.

Even the date of her death is uncertain – estimated at anywhere between 177 to the fourth century, though the martyrdom of her supposed husband (according to the Roman Martyrology) was under Emperor Alexander, who ruled 222-35.

It is more likely that Saint Cecilia was the founder of parish church of that name in the Trastevere section of Rome. Founders of churches were often later turned into saints, not just in Rome. See Vie des Saints by the monks of Abbaye Sainte-Marie for further details on this aspect.

Her name, that she founded a church, and that she was buried in the cemetery of Saint Callixtus (donated to the Church by Cecilia) is all that is really known about Saint Cecilia. Her tomb in the cemetery was the prominent feature of a crypt adjoining the papal crypt according to inscriptions found there.

Her unreliable story, constructed of legends, tells us that Saint Cecilia was born of a patrician family in Rome and raised as a Christian. She wore a coarse horsehair garment beneath her clothes of rank, fasted, and vowed herself to God.

Against her will she was married by her father to a young, pagan patrician named Valerian. While everyone sang and danced at their wedding, Cecilia sat apart, saying only the Psalms. Valerian turned out to be a man of great understanding. On their wedding night, she told Valerian, “I have an angel of God watching over me. If you touch me in the way of marriage, he will be angry and you will suffer. But if you respect my maidenhood, he will love you as he loves me.”

Valerian replied, “Show me this angel.” She told him that if he believed in the living and one true God and was baptized, he would see the angel. Thus, she persuaded Valerian to respect her vow of virginity.

He was impressed and attracted by his wife’s Christian graces, and so Valerian was baptized by Pope Saint Urban (which would be c.222-230). When he returned to Cecilia, he found her standing by the side of an angel as she promised. The angel told him: “I have a crown of flowers for each of you. They have been sent from paradise as a sign of the life you are both to lead. If you are faithful to God, He will reward you with the everlasting perfumes of heaven.”

The angel then crowned Cecilia with roses, and Valerian with a wreath of lilies. The delightful fragrance of the flowers filled the whole house. At this point Valerian’s brother, Tiburtius, appeared. He, too, was offered salvation if he would renounce false gods. Cecilia converted him, and he was baptized.

From that time the two young men dedicated themselves to good works. Because of their ardor in burying the bodies of martyred Christians, they were arrested. The prefect Almachius told them that if they would sacrifice to the gods, they could go free. They refused, and Valerian rejoiced when he was handed over to be scourged.

The prefect wanted to give them another chance, but his assessor warned him that they would simply use the interim to give away their possessions so that they couldn’t be confiscated. They were beheaded in Pagus Triopius, four miles from Rome. With them was an officer named Maximus, who had declared himself a Christian after witnessing their fortitude.

Cecilia buried the three and then decided to turn her home into a place of worship. Her religion was discovered and she herself asked to refute her faith. She converted those who were sent to convince her to sacrifice to the gods. When Pope Urban visited her at home, he baptized over 400 people.

In court, Almachius debated with her for some time. She was sentenced to be suffocated to death in the bathroom of her own house. The furnace was fed seven times its normal amount of fuel, but the steam and heat failed to stifle her. A soldier sent to behead her struck at her neck three times, and she was left dying on the floor. She lingered for three days, during which time the Christians thronged to her side, and she formally made over her house to Urban and committed her household to his care.

She was buried next to the papal crypt in the catacombs of Saint Callixtus. In 817, Pope Saint Paschal I discovered her grave, which had been concealed from the Lombard invader Aistulf in 756, and translated her body to beneath the main altar of what was later called the titulus Sanctae Caeciliae, which translates as “the church founded by a lady named Cecilia.” In 1599, during the renovation of the church, Cardinal Sfondrati opened her tomb and found her holy remains incorrupt. Even the green and gold of her rich robe had not been injured by time. Thousands had the privilege of seeing her in her coffin, and many have been blessed by miracles. The body disintegrated quickly after meeting with the air.

Under the high altar in Saint Cecilia’s Church is a beautiful marble statue by Maderna portraying the “martyr” bathed in her own blood as she fell after the stroke of the sword. A replica of this statue occupies the the original resting place of the saint in the catacomb of Callixtus. Other artists were allowed to paint pictures of her after her tomb was opened.

Until the middle ages, Pope Saint Gregory had been the patron of music and musicians, but when the Roman Academy of Music was established in 1584, it was put under the protection of Saint Cecilia; thus, her patronage of music originated. Dryden wrote a “Song for Saint Cecilia Day” and Pope an “Ode for Music on Saint Cecilia Day.”

Valerian, Tiburtius, and Maximus are historical characters; they were Roman martyrs, buried in the cemetery of Praetextatus, but nothing else is known of them. Their story as outlined above may is a fabrication; but it wasn’t until recently that scholars were able to elucidate it, and from the 6th century onwards Saint Cecilia, virgin and martyr, was held in high honor by Christians in the West. Her legend was the basis for the Second Nun’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Whatever the true story of Saint Cecilia, the virtues assigned to her can be found in authoritative acta of other saints and, thus, are worthy of our heeding and following the example set down in the response and antiphon in the old Roman breviary for the Office of Saint Cecilia:

“In the midst of the concert of instruments, the virgin Cecilia sang to God alone in her heart: ‘May my heart and my body remain pure, O God. Let me not be confounded.’

“She imposed on herself fasts of three and four days. She prayed and gave into God’s keeping that for which she feared.

“Saint Cecilia, you triumphed over Almachius, the prefect, and converted two brothers by showing them bishop Urban of the angelic face. Like an industrious bee, you served the Lord.

“The glorious virgin forever carried the Gospel in her heart. Day and night she prayed and communed with God. She stretched out her hands to the Lord. Her heart was on fire with heavenly love.

“With her hairshirt, Cecilia subdued her body. She groaned and cried out to God. She brought Tiburtius and Valerian to share the crown. She was a wise virgin, to be numbered among the discreet.

“O Lord Jesus Christ, our good Shepherd, author of chaste vows, receive the fruit of the seed that you sowed in Saint Cecilia. Your servant Cecilia, like an industrious bee, spent herself in your service. The husband that came to her like a fierce lion, she brought to you like a most gentle lamb.

“There is a secret, Valerian, that I wish to tell you: ‘I have as my friend an angel of God who watches over my body with jealous care.

“Saint Cecilia said to Tiburtius: ‘Today I greet you as my brother, for the love of God has made you spurn idols.’

“We believe that Christ, the son of God, who chose unto himself such a servant, is the true God.

“As the dawn was breaking, Cecilia cried: ‘Awake, soldiers of Christ. Cast away the works of darkness and clothe yourselves with the arms of light.

“I asked the Lord to spare me yet for three days that I might consecrate my house as a church.” (Appleton, Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Coulson, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Keyes, Melady, Sheppard, Walsh, White)

Saint Cecilia’s emblem is, of course, the organ in images dating after the 15th century. She is shown with an organ, harp, or other musical instrument. Sometimes she is (1) crowned with roses carrying a palm; (2) converting her husband, Saint Valerian; (2) dragged by oxen (this is also told of Saint Lucy); (4) in a cauldron; (5) pierced through the throat by a sword (a common attribute of many virgin martyrs); (6) with Saint Valerian, crowned by angels; or (7) shown in ways similar to Saint Dorothy (Husenbeth quotes several English rood-screens on which her attributes seem to be similar) (Roeder).

Representations without musical instruments can be found in S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (6th century), Roman frescoes in the catacomb of Callixtus, and in Santa Maria Antiqua (Farmer). After she was depicted by Raphael as an organist, her image has been a favorite subject for stained glass in the choir loft (Appleton). Saint Cecilia is the patroness of musicians (Roeder, White) and Albi cathedral.

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 13 August 2020. Web. 27 November 2020. <>