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Caecilia, st., Roman lady

(2nd? 3rd? 4th? ct.)

Caecilia (1), St., a Roman lady, one of the four principal virgins and martyrs of the Western Church, who is commemorated in both the Latin and Greek churches on Nov. 22, but of whom we have hardly any authentic account.

The veneration paid to her can be traced to a very early period. Her martyrdom and that of her three companions is referred to in nearly all the most ancient Latin breviaries and missals—e.g. in the Sacramentary of pope Gregory; the breviary and missal of Milan ascribed to St. Ambrose; the Mozarabic or Spanish liturgy, with proper prayers and prefaces; and a grand office for her feast is contained in the Gallican missal, which is believed to have been in use in Gaul from the 6th cent. down to the time of Charlemagne. Her name appears in the Martyrology attributed to Jerome, in that of Bede, and in all the others, and her martyrdom is placed at Rome. Yet it is very difficult, says Tillemont, to find her true place in the chronology. 137The earliest writer who mentions her is Fortunatus, bp. of Poictiers, at the end of the 6th cent., who states that she died in Sicily between a.d. 176 and 180, under the emperor M. Aurelius or Commodus. The Life of St. Caecilia by Symeon Metaphrastes, a hagiographer of the 10th cent., makes her contemporary with Urban, and places her martyrdom at Rome under Alexander Severus, c. 230; the Greek menologies place it under Diocletian (284–305). On the other hand, the Roman calendar drawn up at Rome under pope Liberius, c. a.d. 352–366, contains no mention of her. This, indeed, is not a complete list of martyrs, but a list of the chief feasts (Rossi, i. 116). Her body must, however, have been there not long after this period; for in the time of pope Symmachus (a.d. 498) there was a church of St. Caecilia at Rome, in which he held a council.

The account of her life and martyrdom by Symeon Metaphrastes, to be found in Surius, is of no authority. The narrative is full of marvels and improbabilities, and the internal evidence alone is quite sufficient to prove its legendary character, though some critics have of late endeavoured to uphold its credibility, and to refer its compilation in its present form to the commencement of the 5th cent. (cf. Ceillier, Hist. des Auteurs Sacrés, vol. ii. Paris, 1859, and see below). There can be little doubt that these Acts of St. Caecilia were composed to be read in the church of the saint on the day of her feast. According to the legend, she was born at Rome of a noble family. She resolved, from love to her Lord, to devote herself to Him by a vow of perpetual virginity. Her parents wished her to marry Valerian, a young Roman, who at that time was not a Christian. She went through the marriage ceremonies; but when alone with her young husband, told him of her vow, and Valerian allowed her to keep it. At her entreaty, he sought out the retreat of Urban, and received baptism at his hands. On returning to his spouse, wearing the white robe of a neophyte, he found her praying in her chamber, and an angel of God at her side. In answer to Valerian’s prayer, the angel promised that his brother, Tiburtius, should become a Christian, and foretold that both brothers should receive the crown of martyrdom. In a.d. 230 Turcius Almachius, prefect of the city, took advantage of the emperor’s absence to give free vent to his hatred of the Christians, and daily put many to death. Valerian and Tiburtius were soon brought before his tribunal. After being scourged, the two brothers were commanded to offer incense to the gods. On refusing, they were condemned to be beheaded and given in charge to Maximus. So moved was he by their exhortations that in the night he and all his family, together with the lictors, believed and were baptized. On the morrow his prisoners were beheaded at the place called Pagus Triopius on the Via Appia at the fourth mile from Rome. When the news reached the prefect that Maximus also had become a Christian, he ordered him to be scourged to death with leaden balls. Soon afterwards he sent his officers to Caecilia and bade her sacrifice to the gods. As she refused, he commanded her to be shut up in her bath, and that the furnace should be heated with wood seven times hotter than it was wont to be. But a heavenly dew falling upon the spouse of Christ refreshed and cooled her body, and preserved her from harm. A day and a night the prefect waited for news of her death. Then he sent one of his soldiers to behead her; but though the sword smote her neck thrice, the executioner could not cut off her head, and he departed, leaving her on the floor of her bath bathed in blood. For three days longer she lived, never ceasing to exhort the people whom she loved to continue steadfast in the Lord, and watching over the distribution of her last alms. Having given her house to the church, she gave up her spirit into the hands of the living God. Urban and his deacons buried her in the cemetery of Calixtus on the Via Appia near the third milestone. Her house he consecrated to God as a church for ever. It is alleged that her body was found at Rome by pope Paschal I. (a.d. 821), in the cemetery of Praetextatus, adjoining that of Calixtus on the Via Appia, and that it was removed by him to the church of St. Caecilia, which he was then rebuilding, and which stands, as is said, on the site of her house, at the extremity of the Trastevere. Here, it is said, her body was again discovered at the end of the 16th cent. in the time of Clement VIII. Baronius has given a long account of the circumstances connected with this pretended discovery, of which he was a witness (s. ann. 821).

The legend of this saint has furnished the subject of several remarkable pictures. The oldest representation of her is a rude picture or drawing on the wall of the catacomb called the cemetery of San Lorenzo, of the date probably of the 6th or 7th cent. (See d’Agincourt, plate xi.) In the 13th cent. Cimabue painted an altar-piece, representing different episodes in the life of the saint for the church dedicated to her at Florence. In both these she appears with the martyr’s crown. In fact, before the 15th cent. St. Caecilia is seldom depicted with her musical instruments. She has generally the martyr’s palm and the crown of red or white roses. When she came to be regarded as the patron saint of musicians is unknown, nor have we any record of her use of instruments of music. The most celebrated representation of St. Caecilia as patroness of this art is the picture by Raphael (c. a.d. 1513), now in the gallery of Bologna.

In 1584, in the time of pope Pius V., an academy of music was founded at Rome, and placed under the tutelage of St. Caecilia. Thenceforward she came to be more and more regarded as queen of harmony, and Dryden’s well-known ode has rendered her familiar to us in this character.

For a more detailed account, we may refer to the following: de Vitis Sanctorum, ed. Surius (Venice, 1581), tom. vi. p. 161, s.d.Nov. 22; Acta Sanctorum, by the Bollandists, s.d. April 14, p. 204; Baronii Annales s. an. a.d. 821; Tillemont, vol. iii. pp. 259–689;S. Caeciliae Acta a Laderchio (Rome, 1722), 2 vols. 4to, incorporating the work of Bosio, with large additions; Sacred and Legendary Art, by Mrs. Jameson, 3rd ed. (Lond. 1857), pp. 583–600; Ceillier, Histoire des Auteurs 138Sacrés, vol. ii. (Paris, 1859); S. Cécile, par Dom. Guéranger (Paris, 1874).


Here may be added the ingenious explanation, given by bp. Fitzgerald, of how St. Caecilia became regarded as the patron of music. She is described as steeling her heart at her marriage festivities against all the allurements to sensual pleasure, and among these, special mention is made of the “symphonia instrumentorum” to which she refused to hearken; but “organis cantantibus die nuptiarum” she made melody in her heart to God, saying, “May my heart and body be undefiled.” The necessities of the pictorial art demanded that each saint should be depicted with an appropriate and distinctive symbol. Bp. Fitzgerald suggests that St. Caecilia was hence represented in early pictures with the organ prominent in her Acts; and that she was thence imagined to be a musician by those who did not understand that she was only represented with an organ as other saints are depicted with the instrument of torture by which they suffered. We may certainly believe that Dryden’s “drew an angel down” had its origin in a misunderstanding of pictures. The Acts relate that on her wedding night she told Valerianus that she was under the protection of an angel who would punish him if he did not respect her chastity, and whom he could see for himself if he would be baptized. This no doubt is the angel who appears in pictures of St. Caecilia, and there is no ground for the idea that the angel came down to listen to her music.

Erbes (Zeitschrift f. Kirchengeschichte, ix. 1) thinks that the Acts of St. Caecilia are not earlier than the end of the 5th cent. They not only exhibit a use of St. Augustine’s work on the Trinity which appeared in a.d. 416, but coincidences in language, as well as in substance, make it probable that the whole story of Caecilia is derived from the story of Martinianus and Maxima told by Victor Vitensis, I. 30. This would bring down the date of the Acts to c. a.d. 490. Erbes remarks that the original day of commemoration of St. Caecilia was Sept. 16: Nov. 22 really commemorates the dedication of the church of St. Caecilia, which probably took place under Sixtus III. between 434 and 440. Concerning the neighbourhood of the burial-place of St. Caecilia in the catacombs to that of certain popes, Erbes holds that in the year 236 a suitable burial-place was being prepared for the body of Pontianus, then brought from Sardinia, as well as for that of Anteros who had died in Rome, that the site was furnished by the Caecilian family, and that in order to make room for the two bishops the body of Caecilia was moved to an adjacent side chamber. As to how Caecilia suffered martyrdom we have no authentic information.


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