This icon of St. Cecilia (‘Sancta Cecelia’ in Latin), created by the iconographer, Marek Czarnecki, was hallowed at Our Lady of the Mountains in April of 2015. It depicts the virgin martyr who died around A.D. 176. This icon graces the chancel of our church because Cecilia is one of the saints we associate with music, together with Ambrose, Gregory, and Hildegard. St. Cecilia is associated with music due to the largely fictional account of her life, the Passion of St. Cecilia. The Passion describes her as a Christian maiden who had secretly vowed her virginity to God. However, her pagan family had arranged a marriage to a man named Valerian. On their wedding night, “while instruments played, she sang in her heart to the Lord alone (cantantibus organis illa in corde suo soli domino decantabat), ‘May my heart and my body be kept spotless so that I not be cast into confusion.’ ” Cecilia persuaded Valerian to convert to Christianity and enter into a celibate marriage. While the Passion of St. Cecilia may be fictional, St. Cecilia was (and is) very much real.
In our icon, her garments of red and purple demonstrate her high status in Roman culture, as do the ornamental patterns in the fabric. Here she plays a lyre, offering up her worship in song. While we know few details about her life, the people in Rome certainly knew Cecilia, and they knew that she was a Christian. She was a close collaborator with the pope, and she opened her home up for worship.
Tradition usually associates Cecilia with the noble class of Rome, but it not easy to confirm this. Her surname indicates her family was not originally Roman, but came from Palestrina, which is about 22 miles east of Rome (and would later be associated with the sixteenth century priest-composer, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina). Palestrina is a 2,700 year old town settled by Etruscans. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, its legendary founder was King Caeculus, and St. Cecilia was of his family (or “gens”). So while politically Cecilia may have been of the plebian caste in Roman society, she still may have descended from an august Italian family. Her family was not poor, for her elegant home in Rome was that of a person of great means and was prominently situated just past what is today called the Ponte Rotto (the capital’s oldest bridge, now mostly a ruin) and just off the Aurelian Way in Trastevere. Cecilia lived only few minutes’ walk from the palaces of the Caesars. Today, a beautiful basilica stands over the site of her home.
After her martyrdom, Saint Cecilia’s body was seen twice. She was originally buried with the popes in the Catacombs of St. Callistus. Five centuries later, her relics were relocated from the catacombs into the city of Rome. When her tomb was opened, her body was found incorrupt. Pope Paschal covered her head with a silk cloth before he had her reinterred in the church he built over her home. Nearly eight centuries later, that church was being restored, and again, her tomb was opened on October 20th, 1599. Witnesses attested to the incorrupt nature of Cecilia’s body and mentioned that the silk cloth was still covering her head. The great sculptor, Stefano Maderno, carved a likeness of the diminutive and slender saint, swearing that he recorded the body as he saw it when the tomb was opened in 1599. The statue depicts the three axe strokes described in the 5th-century account of her martyrdom. It also is meant to underscore the incorruptibility of her body, which miraculously still had congealed blood after centuries.
Today, within the basilica dedicated to her in Rome, Benedictine sisters chant their office and offer up the music of the Mass. Many early churches and monasteries are dedicated to her, as Cecilia is one of the most venerated martyrs of Christian antiquity. Her feast was celebrated in the early Church as early as the fourth century (her feast day is November 22nd), and she is mentioned by name in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I).
Prayer to St. Cecilia
St. Cecilia, glorious Virgin and Martyr of Jesus Christ, I admire the courage with which you professed your faith in the face of severe persecution, and the generous love with which you offered your life in witness to your belief in the Blessed Trinity. I thank God with you for the wonderful graces He bestowed upon you to make your life holy and pleasing to Him even in the midst of the wealth that was yours. I thank Him for the privilege offered to you of receiving the glorious crown of martyrdom.
Saint Cecilia, I also admire the purity of love that bound you to the Savior, which was greater in your eyes than any human affection, so that you declared yourself before the enemies of the Church, “I am the bride of my Lord Jesus Christ.” Pray for me that in imitation of you I may keep my body pure and my soul holy, and that I may love Jesus with all my heart.
In these times so full of pleasure seeking and so lacking in faith, teach us to profess our faith courageously and to be willing to sacrifice ourselves in practicing it, so that our good example may lead others closer to Christ and the Church. He founded.
In thanksgiving to God for the graces he bestowed on St Cecilia:
St. Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr of Jesus Christ, pray for us.