Logan Wegmeyer & Samantha Miller: St. Cecilia

Saint Cecilia: The Story of the Patron Saint of Music

Logan Wegmeyer and Samantha Miller


Music is iconic with the image of a Catholic sanctuary, in all forms of media including writing and movies. The hollow sound of an organ or the soft angelic voices of a chorus can always be associated with the hallowed sight of a church. Due to this iconic nature of music in the church there is, of course, a patron saint of music, Saint Cecilia. Not only is she a remarkable saint because she is a married virgin, a female martyr, and the first saint with an incorrupt body, but also due to her presences as the representative of music since the later Middle Ages. Examples of Saint Cecilia’s influence can be seen around the world, even here in Cincinnati through the Saint Cecilia Parish. Saint Cecilia has affected music since the later Middle Ages and continues to do so today as seen in the chorus and musical nature of Saint Cecilia Parish. This historic church has existed in Cincinnati since 1908. Its influences on the community and religious history of Cincinnati can be seen not only in the past, but in the present as well. This paper will delve into the historical, cultural, and social aspects of Saint Cecilia Parish and the saint it is named for.

Hagiography of Saint Cecilia
Samantha Miller

Cecilia was born in the second century to Quintus Creticus, consul under Augustus, into a noble family in Rome.[1] In many different sources Cecilia is described as being the epitome of Christian values: “Cecilia, despising the ostentation and attractions of the age, practiced with perfect fidelity, the divine law which Christ came to establish upon earth.”[2] Many Christians followed in the footsteps of Saint Cecilia because she led a religious life filled with reading the gospel, living an ascetic life, and communing with God, in spite of the paganism surrounding her. While Cecilia was a devout Christian, her parents were both pagan and did not understand her strict religious beliefs, especially her decision to remain a virgin consecrated in eternal love to God. They arranged for her to be married to a young Roman noble named Valerian.

As a precursor to her marriage, young Cecilia wore hair shirts, fasted, and prayed, living an ascetic life so that God might intervene to stop her marriage so that her virginity might remain intact. The marriage still took place using all of the traditional pagan rituals, including music. Many accounts say that Cecilia either sang to God or heard God singing to her during her wedding.  When the pagan singing began at her wedding, “Cecilia also sang in the depth of her heart, and her melody was united to that of the angels.”[3] According to one source, the pagan singing was heard by all, but the singing of Cecilia was heard only by God. However, another source says: “While the organs were playing, Cecilia sang to the Lord, saying: May my heart be undefiled, that I may not be confounded.”[4] In this version, the pagan singing and the organ was heard by all, and Cecilia’s singing was also heard by all even though it was directed at God. These two rival explanations have always contradicted each other throughout history and yet it is this short description that made Cecilia patron saint of music.

It was through prayer and connection to God that Cecilia made it through her wedding. However, after the wedding Cecilia refused to consummate the marriage. Valerian was, like Cecilia’s parents, a pagan. To preserve her virginity Cecilia told Valerian that an angel of the Lord was watching over her and would punish him if he were to violate her in any way. When he asked her about the angel, including why he could not see the angel, she told him that the only way for him to see the angel would be to become a Christian. Valerian went to Pope Urban and was baptized into Christianity. When Valerian returned to Cecilia he could see the angel and together they were crowned with wreaths as a symbol of their marital chastity.[5] Even after Valerian was baptized into the Christian faith the couple never consummated their marriage. This makes Cecilia a married virgin saint, which is very rare. Very soon after their marriage Cecilia and Valerian converted Valerian’s brother Tiburtius to Christianity, who was also baptized by Pope Urban.[6]

Cecilia converted many pagans to the Christian faith during her lifetime. The problem with these conversions is that Cecilia lived during a time of Christian persecution by the Romans. This meant that everyone she converted, along with herself, put themselves at risk by practicing Christianity. Cecilia, Valerian, and Tiburtius gave their money away to people in need, a major trait for Christians during the Middle Ages. Valerian, and Tiburtius also began collecting the bodies of the Christian martyrs for proper burial when the persecution under Almachius occurred; this was considered a major offense to the emperor of Rome who demanded punishment. Since Valerian and Tiburtius were nobles from pagan families, they were very well respected in Rome even by the temporary ruler, Almachius. Due to their status Almachius did not want to punish them but instead ordered that they make a sacrifice at the altar of the gods, to which the newly Christian Valerian and Tiburtius said no. This led to Almachius persecuting them as Christians. He ordered that they be beheaded, which turned both Valerian and Tiburtius into martyrs for the Christian cause.[7] Before they were martyred Valerian and Tiburtius converted Maximus, the soldier who was watching over them so that they would not escape. Maximus also became a Christian martyr after Almachius killed him for converting to Christianity.[8]

After Valerian and Tiburtius were martyred Cecilia was also brought in for questioning by Almachius. During this questioning Cecilia, like her husband before her, made Almachius seem like a fool to the audience for his questioning of Christianity:

Cecilia’s ascendancy in public after her botched decollation (when she preaches to the masses) is augmented by her ability to strip the tyrant of his political legitimacy before her decollation. She reveals the inner vileness lurking under the shimmer of royal prerogative and establishes her own authority by diminishing his.[9]

In this argument Cecilia continued to deny the Roman gods and argued for the existence of the one true God, all while making Almachius seem like a fool in his own court. As with Valerian, he initially did not want to punish Cecila since she was from a noble family, but her blatant rejection of the Roman gods and her open acceptance of Christianity made him unable to ignore her crimes. Almachius sentenced Cecilia to death by suffocation from heat. The sentence included “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 Cecilia was should be closed, so that she should die of suffocation. This was done, but she survived the attempt.”[10] Since Cecilia survived the suffocation attempt, Almachius sent an executioner to kill her. He slashed her throat three times but she did not die. According to Roman law he could not attempt again, so she was left on the floor of her room to die. She did not die immediately, but instead bled out on the floor for three days while still converting people to Christianity. While she was bleeding out she was visited by “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 endeavored to staunch the wounds in her throat.”[11] She continued to preach to the Christians that surrounded her even as she bled to death.[12] Her death at the hands of Almachius led to her being viewed as a martyr for the Christian cause and people began collecting bloody rags which were to be used as relics for Christians in Rome once she became a saint.

Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, by Stefano Maderno (1600) (Wikipedia)
Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, by Stefano Maderno (1600) (Wikipedia)

Pope Urban reportedly had her buried in the catacombs of Saint Callixtus, where the remains of many holy people, including former Popes, were also housed.  After her burial Rome was taken over multiple times by Goths and Lombards; her body was said to have been taken by one of these groups during their occupation of Rome, however, around 821 Pope Paschal had a vision of Cecilia where she told him where to find her body. Once her sarcophagus was discovered, Paschal had it moved to the altar of the Basilica of Saint Cecilia in Rome.[13] Her body was exhumed from its sarcophagus in 1599 by Cardinal Paul Sfondrato to reveal her body in pristine condition.[14] Therefore, Cecilia is one of the first saints to be found incorrupt, or her body had not decayed from the time it was buried to the time that it was rediscovered. This incorruptibleness has been recreated in many works of art, specifically in a famous sculpture by Stefano Maderno showing the way “she had lain, preserved from decay through thirteen centuries.”[15] The sculpture is a depiction of the way the Cardinal found her body upon opening her sarcophagus, her body lying on its side with her neck wound still visible and her hands folded in front of her. The incorrupt body just adds to Cecilia’s uniqueness as a saint: she was a married virgin martyr saint who was also the first saint to be discovered incorruptible. All of these traits together make Saint Cecilia stand apart from other saints.

Entrance to Catacombs of Callixtus (Wikimedia Commons)
Entrance to Catacombs of Callixtus (Wikimedia Commons)

Cecilia was made a saint before that right was reserved to the papacy. Many early martyrs were immediately proclaimed saints because they spilled their own blood for the sake of Christianity. This means that Cecilia was called a saint by the early Christians after her martyrdom instead of through an official process by the church. Saint Cecilia was chosen by the people to represent Christianity instead of by a church authority figure. It was later that Cecilia was chosen to be the patron saint of music, this decision was influence by a short saying from the Acts of Saint Cecilia regarding her wedding where she supposedly sung to God, or was sung to by God or angels.

Constructed Sanctity
Samantha Miller

There are many aspects from the story of Cecilia’s life that lead people to believe that she was not a real saint but rather a constructed saint. There are historical inaccuracies with the evidence of her cult and regarding the dates of her life and death. There is also the issue of the pope: the story of Saint Cecilia claims that Pope Urban performed baptisms in a century when there is no Pope Urban reported. These inaccuracies support the argument that Cecilia is a highly constructed saint.

While the telling of Cecilia’s death implies that a cult for her began almost immediately, this is not necessarily true. The cult of Saint Cecilia can only be traced back to the fourth century not the second century, when she supposedly lived and died. “The earliest evidence for the veneration of Cecilia’s cult shows that the saint was commemorated in the fourth century, as attested by a fourth-century church in the Trastevere quarter of Rome dedicated to Saint Cecilia. Tradition has it that this church, still preserved, is located on property Cecilia or her family owned.”[16] The feast day of Saint Cecilia, November 22nd, was not celebrated until the fourth century, which continues to support that her cult did not exist when she was alive or even very shortly after her death. Since the story of Cecilia cult seems to be incorrect in these aspects, and many others, it is commonly accepted that Saint Cecilia is a constructed saint.

The use of Pope Urban as the person who baptized Valerian and Tiburtius was a good concept to connect Cecilia and the brothers to the most powerful living person in all of Christianity. However, there is not any historical evidence for a Pope Urban in the second century, when Cecilia is claimed to have lived. In fact, in the original story of Cecilia the man that is called Urban “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.”[17] The example of Pope Urban further solidifies that Saint Cecilia did not live in the time that the stories say that she did and only adds to the notion of her as a constructed saint.

Some historians have even gone so far as to say that Cecilia did not exist at since the historical evidence that exists about her is so contradictory. It leads many of them to conclude that there is “no evidence, indeed, beyond what seems to have been a deeply ingrained popular cult, that she ever existed.” [18] Many historians cannot verify that there ever was a Cecilia who did everything that is claimed in her hagiography, which leads to the questioning of her existence. In his analysis of the story of Saint Cecilia, S. Baring-Gould even points out that “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.”[19] Through comments like this he is slyly telling his audience that not all the stories about Saint Cecilia, and other saints, should be trusted, which only adds to the constructed sainthood of Saint Cecilia.

Historiography of Saint Cecilia
Samantha Miller

Throughout history there has not been that much written about Saint Cecilia. Of course there have been the hagiographies about her life, but there are not many. There are also books and articles detailing her influence on different aspects of the arts. The source that is considered the most reliable for learning details of the life of Saint Cecilia is the Acts of Saint Cecilia, which is the first hagiography about her life. There have been a few other notable sources published, including Life of Saint Cecilia: Virgin and Martyr by Prosper Guéranger. This was the first notable hagiography about Saint Cecilia written in English so it has become an important source for people studying Saint Cecilia who cannot read other languages. Some books also mention Saint Cecilia as a member of certain groups of saints. She fits under certain umbrella categories that are written about using her as an example. Books like this that were used as sources in this essay include Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock about married virgin saints and Virgin Saints and Martyrs which focuses on saints who happened to be both virgins and martyrs. These books often only briefly mention Cecilia, focusing on her for only a chapter or only using her as an example for other saints who came after her.

Hagiographies are not the only way that Cecilia has been written about in the past; there have also been books and articles discussing her influence on music and the other arts. Her influence on music and art is frequently discussed due to her position as patron saint of music and can be found in Mourning into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia. Her influence on literature is also analyzed, for example in “Straight Talk: Community, Conflict, and Critique in the Lives of Women Saints in Medieval England.” This source discusses Saint Cecilia in the context of her effects on Chaucer’s The Second Nun’s Tale. Another way her influence on the arts can be seen is through the many songs and poems that have been written in honor of Saint Cecilia, including John Dryden’s poem A Song for Saint Cecilia Day and The Andrews Sisters song The Shrine of Saint Cecilia. There are many more ways that Cecilia has been discussed throughout history but the most prominent have been hagiography and her influence on the arts.

History of Saint Cecilia Parish
Logan Wegmeyer

Saint Cecilia Parish in Oakley, Cincinnati has been around since the early 20th century. With a long and historic past this religious institution has been at the heart of the Oakley community decade after decade and has stood as a point of pride for many in the Cincinnati community. Saint Cecilia Parish received its humble beginnings on June 3, 1908 when a group of men and women from the sixty-five Catholic households of Oakley, Cincinnati met to secure the rights to a Catholic Church for the village of Oakley. This committee, later known as the Family Circle, sent a request for the creation of said Catholic Church to the then Archbishop of Cincinnati, Henry Moeller.[20] On June 16, 1908 the proposition organized by the Family Circle was accepted by the Archbishop, but with certain exceptions to the building parameters.[21] Still, the community of Saint Cecilia had successfully been created and the establishment of this new church community had begun.

Following the creation of this new community, Archbishop Henry Moeller on July 15, 1908 appointed Rev. Timothy Deasy (1874-1945) as the first pastor of Saint Cecilia Parish.[22] The first church built for the new community cost only $1700 and was erected on Gilmore Avenue (less than a block away from today’s Saint Cecilia Church) in the late summer of 1908.[23] The church became officially decided on October 11, 1908 and would serve as the church sanctuary until 1913.[24] The church community grew so rapidly after the creation of the Parish that by 1911 the congregation had outgrown its first church on Gilmore Avenue and had to have three Sunday Masses just to accommodate the amount of church-goers.[25] In 1912 the organizing, fundraising, and approval of building not only a new church but also a school on Taylor Avenue began.[26] The project cost $10,471 and was completed in the summer of 1913 with the blessing of the church and school on August 3, 1913.[27] From 1913-1917 the Parish not only gained notoriety for its men’s choirs but boys’ choirs as well. The School was also given a second floor to accommodate the increasing number of children attending the school.[28] In 1918 Saint Cecilia School and Parish were shut down for extended periods of time because of the severity of the 1918 flu pandemic which spread across the world.[29]

Once again, because of the rapidly increasing Parish population, the Taylor Avenue church had also become too small for the parish of 510 families. In 1921 the purchase of more land and the creation of a building committee was deemed necessary to create a church building large enough to house the parish congregation for the foreseeable future.[30]  From 1921 to 1926 the Parish raised funds and planned the building of their new church, the permission by not only the city but the archbishop was given to them sometime between 1925 and 1926 with actual construction of the church beginning in 1927.[31] The construction of Saint Cecilia Church and rectory was completed from January 18, 1927 to August 4, 1928, costing a total of $400,000; the new building actually wouldn’t be fully furnished until the late 1940’s because of the Great Depression in the 1930’s and Wartime efforts in the 1940’s.[32] The church bells, which are still used and hang in the church today, were blessed and named on October 21, 1928. The bells were all named after other prominent saints: Saint Joseph, Saint Mary, Saint Henry, and Saint Catherine.[33] The actual Church and rectory were dedicated on Sunday, November 25, 1928 at 10:30 AM by Reverend John T. McNicholas, Archbishop of Cincinnati. The story of the dedication and church were published in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Catholic Telegraph, and several smaller local newspapers.[34] The telegraph was quoted saying:

The great wealth of architectural precedent in design and detail has been interestingly embodied in the interior of the church, in the narthex screen, confessionals, altar recesses and sanctuary. The traditions and symbolisms of the Church have been carefully and authentically carried out, with an endeavor to spiritualize the building and make it worthy of its lofty mission.[35]

A couple years later in 1930 the Cincinnati Chapter of the American Institute of Architects awarded Saint Cecilia Parish first prize for beautiful design and execution of a structure.[36] The 1930’s and 1940’s saw the Great Depression and World War II respectively. Both of these major events kept the church from finishing the interior, most specifically the altar and stained glass windows. Still, the church saw increased congregational growth even with the passing of the first pastor of the congregation Rev. Deasy on August 5, 1945.[37] The 1950’s consisted of several new spiritual changes and organizations to the church, including the Human Rosary Group and the loss and gain of three different pastors.[38] Saint Cecilia School and Church saw several renovations in the 1960’s and 1970’s. These renovations included the installation of stain glass windows in 1962, total renovations to the old school building and cafeteria in 1964, and the addition of a library in 1967. (This was also the first year the church was free of debt).[39] New renovations also included a new altar and tabernacle in the church which was built in 1971.[40]

The 1980’s started with major repairs to the church organ which had been in service since 1928. In 1981 the organ of Saint Cecilia was renovated and expanded to a 29-rank instrument, which gives the organist a larger range to play. Father Elmer Smith also took over as acting Pastor in 1981 and would serve the church until 2008.[41] Church outreach also expanded in the 1980’s and then again in the 1990’s with the creation of the Oakley community Thanksgiving Dinner (1986) and publicizing of the annual Christmas Dinner to the Oakley community (1992), both have served hundreds of people every year and still stand as an important event within the Oakley community.[42] In 1992 the church’s longest living founding member, Nettie Huber, died at the age of 112. This was a very solemn time in the church’s history. Huber’s tales and recanted life had become a focus of not only Saint Cecilia Parish but Cincinnati as well, with reporters getting interviews from her every few years from the founding of the church until her death.[43]

The 21st century was met with more work on the church building itself. This includes the church flooring being replaced in 2007, along with this came reconstruction of the altar and new pew placement. Thewhole process cost $16,000 and was in preparation for the 100 hundred anniversary of Saint Cecilia Parish in 2008.[44] During the centennial year of the church, many events and activities were held to look back on and celebrate the one hundred years that had just come and gone. The celebration ended with a Mass on September 14, 2008 with special guest Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk presiding. That same year the now acting Pastor of the congregation took over on July 1, 2008. Father Jamie Weber replaced the retiring Elmer Smith as acting Pastor and became the seventh Reverend to hold that position.[45] As of 2008 the church has recorded in its first one hundred years 9,140 baptisms, 4,712 funerals, and 3,248 weddings. Due to the multiple renovations over the years the church and rectory are now valued at $6,000,000.[46] Although the history of Saint Cecilia Parish is historic and fascinating, Saint Cecilia herself has also had a profound impact not only on the church community but on music as a whole.

Influence of Saint Cecilia on the Parish
Logan Wegmeyer

Having your church named after the patron saint of music is going to have an effect on your parish even if it is in a small way. Saint Cecilia Parish in Oakley took their namesake and put it at the center of their church and school community. If you were to ask any parishioner of Saint Cecilia or even a local of the Oakley community what Saint Cecilia is known for, one of the top answers given would be the church choirs.[47]  The choirs of Saint Cecilia have been around and prevalent since the 1910’s and has grown and become an integral piece of Saint Cecilia Parish community history. The choir sings at almost every Sunday service and even released a Christmas album locally last year. The liturgy at Saint Cecilia Parish also contains more singing and chorus sets than most liturgies found in other churches.[48] The idea that God sang to Saint Cecilia is a concept that the church took and reversed it with the congregation singing back to God. The choir also gets help from the beautiful organ that is elevated above the pews and housed in the back of the sanctuary. It is also framed by a stained glass window which features many prominent saints, including Saint Cecilia. The organ has been part of Saint Cecilia since its construction in 1928, being restored only once in 1981.[49] The organ, like the choir, plays almost every Sunday, and although it is not the biggest or most extravagant organ ever, it still has very powerful symbolism to Saint Cecilia herself. Saint Cecilia is usually depicted with either a violin or portative organ Even the statue in the sanctuary has Saint Cecilia holding this portative organ, this small connection still has significance to the Parish and has been seen as a very important influence in the development of music in their community.[50] If singing and organ playing didn’t fill the hallowed halls of the church enough, the Parish of Saint Cecilia takes to the streets in June for the celebration of Corpus Christi and adds to their community celebration of the Eucharist and music. During the Corpus Christi celebration the congregation takes the Eucharist out into the streets of Oakley and parades it around the community. Many stops are made along the way with hymns and songs being sung for all in the community to hear. This event is hosted to literally bring their faith out into the streets and to have the Oakley community join in on this celebration. Music is not only used to honor Saint Cecilia and the Eucharist but also to invite others to join in the event.[51]

The Parish community definitely has a close connection with music and their patron saint but it does not stop there. Saint Cecilia Parish School also has an emphasis on music and arts education. The school, in their curriculum statement, says that the arts are to be a fundamental part of education by saying “We believe the arts are an integral part of a student’s education. Kids are exposed to music and art classes beginning in kindergarten. These subjects help build creativity in the students, and they help make classroom learning come alive”.[52] What this shows is that at Saint Cecilia School music and the arts are a top priority in education. While other schools cut music and art programs to dismal levels, Saint Cecilia School makes it a priority to teach the concepts of arts from a young age. Other schools do not make it a priority to teach music and arts, but it says something about the Parish and school when they take their saint and her patronage and really make it a focal point with almost everything that they do. Saint Cecilia supposedly heard God singing to her and in return she sang to God in her heart. Saint Cecilia Parish mimics this concept in almost everything they do, singing to God literally and within their hearts.

Saint Cecilia’s Influence on the Arts
Logan Wegmeyer

Saint Cecilia is considered the patron saint of music, or more specifically church music. Her influence on music and art has been prevalent since the 15th century all the way up to modern day and in general is not quite what you would expect. As we have stated above, Saint Cecilia was known to have sung to God in her heart. This and other translations of this passage have created a monumental influence on church music from the 1500’s to the 1800’s. The main source for Saint Cecilia’s history comes from the Acts of Saint Cecilia which have been hotly debated by many regarding both accuracy and truthfulness since Saint Cecilia is considered somewhat of a constructed saint.[53] Still, the main idea of Saint Cecilia singing to God in her heart comes from this account. This is the first example of Cecilia being matched up with music since she sang to God, even if it wasn’t out loud. A later translation of the story found in The Golden Legend (1483) said that on the saint’s wedding day while the organs were playing, she sang to the lord in her heart. This is supported by the Vesper Antiphon, where it is said that on her wedding day Cecilia sang with the organs to God. In both cases the organ and physical act of singing are disputed.[54] The importance of these translations lies in the physical context. For starters, the organ during Cecilia’s time and many centuries afterward was forbidden by the Christian faith since it was seen as a pagan tool.[55] Since Cecilia married Valerian, a pagan man, organs might have been present at their wedding and since she sang with them, the concept that the organ was forbidden because it was not Christian started to loosen. The popularity of the organ in modern day church music could be contributed to Cecilia and her frequently being depicted in images with organs.[56] Although the most iconic images of Saint Cecilia did not come around until the 15th century, well after organs were being used in churches, the consistent texts that portrayed Cecilia with organs either in her hand or around her had to play in to their popularity as a church instrument.[57] Stemming from this original concept of Cecilia being depicted with an organ other instruments, such as the violin and the harp, soon followed. This was mostly contributed to by artist of the 15th and 16th century who always put some sort of instrument in Cecilia’s hand or around her, but this will be discussed more in detail in the next paragraph. Saint Cecilia also put a new face to the church music we know today. As the Gregorian Chant style of church music started to decline in full by the 15th century a new face in music was found. Saint Cecilia took the role and replaced Saint Gregory the Great as the patron saint of church music.[58] Although no information is found on Saint Cecilia ever being a musician she has been turned into one by artisans and peasants alike.[59] The idea of a married virgin, who became a martyr and sang to God made her a prime candidate to become the new face of church music; with the help of painters and writers Cecilia would become the centerpiece of music related ideas within the church and put her in a pinnacle around other famous saints like Saint Mary and Saint Paul.

The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia (1516-1517) (Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ecstasy_of_St._Cecilia_%28Raphael%29)
The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia (1516-1517) (Wikipedia)

Out of all the imagery depicting Saint Cecilia, no other piece of work is as well-known and popular as Raphael’s The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia.  This iconic image, which was painted around 1516-1517 for San Giovanni in Monte, depicts Saint Cecilia (center) in the midst of Saint Paul, Saint John, Saint Augustine, and Mary Magdalene as they listen to the music of angels from above. This famous work of art is both beautiful and thought provoking having a much deeper meaning than first thought. This concept, according to Thomas Connolly, author of the book Mourning Into Joy, not only explains the origins of Saint Cecilia but gives an interesting twist on not only Raphael’s famous painting. But why did Saint Cecilia became such an iconic image to music? Since the origins of Saint Cecilia have already been fleshed out, we will delve right into the core concept of Connolly’s writings. What Connolly illustrates and finds the most important is to show Cecilia as an important contributor to music was the idea of mourning into joy. The story of Saint Cecilia when she is condemned to death, almost beheaded, and even as she bleeds to death for three days she preaches to people about the Christian God; it is the story we have already told. But what Connolly says is that Cecilia did not mourn her death but instead taught others the joy of God and in a sense turned the whole idea of mourning into a concept of joy for better things to come.[60] He then connects this to Raphael’s painting saying that in the picture Saint Cecilia is not shown being sad or upset about the instruments destroyed on the foreground in front of her, which supposedly represented her life but gladly looking to the heavens for her life to come and listening to the angelic music that she hears coming from heaven.[61] Connolly, to bring it around full circle, connects the life of Saint Cecilia and what she meant to music and why she had such a deep impact on it. Again back to the concept of mourning to joy, this view resonated with a church culture that was truly changing in terms of music and social ideals.[62] The idea that death wasn’t something to be mourned over but to be joyful found its way into music. Hymns, songs, and liturgies changed from solemn words in a continuous chant, to ideas of resurrection, rebirth, and everlasting life with more emphasis on musical instruments and up-tempo singing.[63] Furthermore sermons from 1150-1350 saw a rise in scripture that had to do with mourning and joy like Esther 13:17 or Jeremiah 31.[64] Music had become a cherished expression for spiritual conviction and transformation with Cecilia as the figure of it all.[65] This new way of looking at death and mourning changed forever the musical and religious landscape of Europe. Saint Cecilia’s story, real or fake, had personified all these ideas and put them into one person. This not only made is easy for people to follow but to truly understand the ideas that came with the story of Saint Cecilia. This personification of Saint Cecilia through music also allowed for the growth of her cult as more people were exposed to church music they also became exposed to her as the patron saint of music.

Saint Cecilia’s Influence on Literature
Samantha Miller

Saint Cecilia has influenced many different types of art, including a surprising form of art found in literature. The most notable place to witness this influence is in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, specifically in The Canterbury Tales which includes the story The Second Nun’s Tale.  Chaucer offers a:

revision of the Cecilia legend [which] suggests the centrality of the saint’s strategy as a translator of “old” textual authority that the tyrant uses to establish his legitimacy. Cecilia’s challenge to the tyrant Almachius demonstrates a power shift accomplished through the subject’s command of the process of translatio studii, a power shift that also features prominently in the Second Nun’s Prologue in the Second Nun’s justification for translating the Cecilia legend into the vernacular for her English readers.”[66]

Manuscript Image from the Digital Scriptorium Huntington Catalog Database. DS Desription: “The Second Nun, her horse standing on a grassy plot, within the gloss space, by the third artist; illegible note to the right of the figure’s head in the outer margin, possibly fifteenth century.” (http://dpg.lib.berkeley.edu/webdb/dsheh/heh_brf?CallNumber=EL+26+C+9&Description=&page=2)

This story basically repeats the story of Saint Cecilia and her marriage, the conversion of Valerian, and her martyrdom at the hands of the Roman prefect to a new audience. That new audience includes Christians who examine the work and rediscover the original arguments for Christianity. Cecilia argues for heaven and the idea of an afterlife where, if you are a good Christian, you can spend eternity in heaven as reward. This view is used in The Second Nun’s Tale to show the difference in life on Earth and the afterlife. “The Lyf of Seynt Cecile’s central theoretical concern—a concern that marks it as an orthodox saint’s life—is with the relationship between the two fundamentally distinct worlds in which the human being operates.”[67] These two distinct worlds are Earth, or the mortal realm, and heaven, the realm of God. Christianity has largely accepted this message of an afterlife, which was not a pagan belief during Cecilia’s lifetime, and accepts that we will all die and be united with God in heaven. The glory of this unification with God has made it the Christian spiritual aim to enter heaven through leading a religious life here on Earth. This strengthens the role of saints in the Christian community because they are there as examples of how to live a religious life by following the teachings of Jesus, which leads to the growth of the cults of many saints.

The story of The Second Nun’s Tale is a retelling of Cecilia’s hagiography but written for a non-academic audience in England, which shows that Cecilia is slowly but surely shifting to influence the average people in society instead of just the upper class, well-educated Christians. It is through these pathways that saints gain a following that lasts longer than just the people who witnessed the martyrdom or the miracles and grow wider than just the areas they were born in. This wider audience is what brought about a widening of the cult which assisted many saints to actually make it to canonization. This is not technically the case with Cecilia since she became a saint very soon after her death, but the use of her to promote music allowed for the growth of her cult which just continued to spread her influence. Influence begot more influence until she became popular enough to be one of very few saints listed in the Roman Canon of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Nobis quoque peccatoribus section. The influence Cecilia has on the arts, which most people experience during their daily lives, has led to her high profile among the saints and her long reign as patron saint of music, as well as her influence over various forms of art.


Saint Cecilia, as we have shown, has had a profound effect on historical, cultural, and social aspects of not only music but the parish community as well. Cecilia’s contributions to music occurred both directly and indirectly, reshaping the way Christians, from the medieval times to modern day, look music and art in general. As we have shown, instruments like the organ, once thought to be pagan, were turned into popular Christian iconography. The most lasting contribution consists of turning the idea of mourning into a joyous occasion. This concept altered music, religion, and art as we know it. Even today, Cecilia’s lasting impact has moved communities like Saint Cecilia Parish to a point where music has become a focal point in the life and religious practices of this historic parish and school. Although it is not fully known if Cecilia was real or constructed, her personification of music and religious teachings forever hold a steadfast place within the Catholic Church.


[1] Prosper Guéranger, Life of Saint Cecilia: Virgin and Martyr (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1923), 47-48.

[2] Ibid., 47-48.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Gregory Murray, “Saint Cecilia and Music,” The Downside Review 57 (1939): 78, accessed November 17, 2014.

[5] Dyan Elliott, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 64.

[6] Ibid., 75-88.

[7] Ibid., 92-103.

[8] Ibid., 110.

[9] Donna A. Bussell, “Straight Talk: Community, Conflict, and Critique in the Lives of Women Saints in Medieval England” (Dissertation, Columbia University, 2005), 230-231.

[10] S. Baring-Gould, “Saint Cecilia,” Virgin Saints and Martyrs (New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1901), 23.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Guéranger, 128.

[13] Ibid., 205-209.

[14] “St Cecilia, First Incorruptible Saint,” St Cecilia, First Incorruptible Saint, Roman-Catholic-Saints.com, 2011, web, accessed November 17, 2014, <http://www.roman-catholic-saints.com/st-cecilia.html&gt;.

[15] Baring-Gould, 34.

[16] Leslie A. Donovan, Women Saints Lives in Old English Prose (Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2000), 57.

[17] Baring-Gould, 26.

[18] Thomas Connolly, Mourning Into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 24.

[19] Baring-Gould, 38.

[20] Saint Cecilia Parish, The Parish of Saint Cecilia: 100 Years of Faith and Community, Cincinnati, Ohio, CJ Krehbiel Company, 2008, 4.

[21] Ibid., 5.

[22] Ibid., 6.

[23] Ibid., 7.

[24] Ibid., 7.

[25] Ibid., 8.

[26] Ibid., 9.

[27] Ibid., 10.

[28] Ibid., 12-13.

[29] Ibid., 13.

[30] Ibid., 13-14.

[31] Ibid., 14-15.

[32] Ibid., 17-20.

[33] Ibid., 17.

[34] Ibid., 17.

[35] Catholic Telegraph, “St. Cecilia Church, Oakley, an Architectural Dream, Dedicated”, Cincinnati, Ohio, Catholic Telegraph, 1928, 7.

[36] The Parish of Saint Cecilia, 18.

[37] Ibid., 20.

[38] Ibid., 24-28.

[39] Ibid., 29-30.

[40] Ibid., 31.

[41] Ibid., 34-35.

[42] Ibid., 35-36.

[43] Ibid., 36.

[44] Ibid., 41.

[45] Ibid., 41.

[46] Ibid., 41.

[47] Brendan Dudley, Interviewed by Logan Wegmeyer and Samantha Miller, Personal interview, September 29, 2014.

[48] Ibid.

[49] The Parish of Saint Cecilia, 34.

[50] Brendan Dudley, Interviewed by Logan Wegmeyer and Samantha Miller, Personal interview, September 29, 2014.

[51] Ibid.

[52] “Saint Cecilia Parish—Oakley,” Saint Cecilia Parish – Oakley, web, accessed November 17, 2014. <http://www.stceciliacincinnati.org/&gt;.

[53] Gregory Murray, “Saint Cecilia and Music,” The Downside Review 57 (1939): 77, accessed November 17, 2014.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Connolly, 73-75.

[61] Ibid., 248-254.

[62] Ibid., 151.

[63] Ibid., 160-163.

[64] Ibid., 157-159.

[65] Ibid., 193-195.

[66] Bussell, 218.

[67] David Raybin “Chaucer’s Creation and Recreation of the “Lyf of Seynt Cecile”” The Chaucer Review 32 no. 2 (1997): 197, JSTOR, Web, accessed November 20, 2014.


Baring-Gould, S. “Saint Cecilia.” Virgin Saints and Martyrs. New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1901. 19-38.

Bussell, Donna A. “Straight Talk: Community, Conflict, and Critique in the Lives of Women Saints in Medieval England.” Dissertation. Columbia University, 2005.

Connolly, Thomas. Mourning Into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

Donovan, Leslie A. Women Saints Lives in Old English Prose. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2000.

Dudley, Brendan. Interviewed by Logan Wegmeyer and Samantha Miller. Personal interview. September 29, 2014.

Elliott, Dyan. Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Guéranger, Prosper. Life of Saint Cecilia: Virgin and Martyr. New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1923.

Murray, Gregory. “Saint Cecilia and Music.” The Downside Review 57 (1939): 77-81. Xavier University Library. Web. Accessed November 17, 2014.

Raybin, David. “Chaucer’s Creation and Recreation of the “Lyf of Seynt Cecile”” The Chaucer Review 32 no. 2 (1997): 197-212. JSTOR. Web. Accessed November 20, 2014.

“St Cecilia, First Incorruptible Saint.” St Cecilia, First Incorruptible Saint. Roman-Catholic-Saints.com, 2011. Web. Accessed November 17, 2014. <http://www.roman-catholic-saints.com/st-cecilia.html>.

Saint Cecilia Parish. The Parish of Saint Cecilia: 100 Years of Faith and Community. Cincinnati, Ohio, CJ Krehbiel Company, 2008.

“Saint Cecilia Parish – Oakley.” Saint Cecilia Parish – Oakley. Web. Accessed November 17, 2014. <http://www.stceciliacincinnati.org/>.