Ironically, St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians because of the disdain she felt for the music played at her wedding celebration: "While the musical instruments sounded, she sang in her heart to the Lord alone, saying, 'Let my heart and my body be undefiled, O Lord, that I may not be confounded'" (Ryan, 318).
Starting in the 15th century the images of St. Cecilia favor musical instruments as her attribute – especially organs (example). Under the influence of this iconography, one 15th-century Life that usually follows the Golden Legend faithfully changes Voragine's "While the musical instruments sounded" to "while the organs sang."1 By the 17th century the saint is actually playing an organ in one Spanish portrait and in Dryden's "Song for St. Cecilia's Day."2 (Another 17th century image has her playing a violoncello.)
In Raphael's 1514 painting at right her preference for heavenly song is expressed in the broken state of the instruments, the angels above singing a capella, and her own heavenward glance. That glance becomes a common feature in Renaissance portraits (example) and is reprised in the nineteenth century, when St. Cecilia is adopted as a model of refined womanhood (example).
Versions of St. Cecilia's story go back to the 5th century (Butler IV, 403) and there are portraits from the 6th century in Ravenna and in Croatia. In both she is among other female saints who are made to look all but identical. Her portrait is more individualized in a 9th-century apse mosaic, but there are no attributes and certainly nothing regarding music. Even in the St. Cecilia altarpiece from 14th-century Florence her only attributes are a book and a tiny palm branch, which could identify any one of hundreds of saints.
According to her legend, St. Cecilia was raised a Christian in a noble Roman household. On the night of her nuptials she explains her faith to her bridegroom Valerian, saying that an angel has crowns for them both if he will respect her virginity and become a Christian (image). Valerian then goes to Pope Urban for baptism and subsequently brings his brother into the faith.
The story continues with the martyrdom of the brothers, which is delayed by the conversion of the executioner Maximus and his men. Then the judge Almachius orders that Cecilia be scalded to death in her bath. When this fails, he orders her beheaded. This is only partly successful, so she lives three more days, time enough to preach the faith, convert multitudes, and give her goods to the poor.
We see this story told in a set of eight panels in the St. Cecilia Altarpiece mentioned above. A 17th-century chapel dedicated to St. Cecilia in Rome also has frescoes by Domenichino tracing some of the episodes: the crowns, the trial, the distribution of goods to the poor, and Cecilia's death.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-18, 2017-02-17.