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Feast of St. Cecilia

The vita of Santa Cecilia is difficult as far as concrete information goes, but her later veneration was widespread and devoted. Her relics are honored at the beautiful Roman church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere (transferred there from their original location in the Catacomb of Callistus), where Stefano Maderno created a famous sculptural portrait, supposedly based on the position of the saint's body in its tomb when it was opened in the 16th century. The commemoration of her martyrdom, on November 22, is a cause of celebration not only for those named for her but for musicians, who claim Cecilia as their patron. Her connection to musicians is tenuous at best, however, since it comes from a misreading of a line in her vita. As the musicians played at her wedding to Valerianus (who was to become a Christian and live in chastity with his virgin bride), she ignored the worldly music and sang in her heart to the Lord alone (cantantibus organis illa in corde suo soli domino decantabat). She is often shown with musical instruments, especially the organ, as her symbol.

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Henry Purcell, Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, Gabrieli Consort, Paul McCreesh
In Raphael's altarpiece for a church in Bologna, instruments are strewn at her feet like a pile of junk, with the organ about to slip from Cecilia's hands, as she raises her ears to the celestial music coming from above. The saints gathered around her are Paul, John the Evangelist, Augustine, and Mary Magdalen: in particular, I love how Paul looks down at the pile of instruments with bemused scorn. On this day of Thanksgiving in the United States, musicians have much to be thankful for: although a day off from work would be a nice thing, most of us will perform in church or elsewhere one way or another today. The holiday season is a musician's bread and butter, after all. As much as we love music and the sounds we make and hear, St. Cecilia, our patron, is reminding us that music is not an end unto itself. The music and the instruments we love will pass away just like everything else. The thought is depressing only if we do not, like her, listen for the concert above.

Photo image: Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), Altarpiece (Ecstasy of St. Cecilia), made for the Church of San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna, 1514-15 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna)

Soho the Dog has an update on the Saint Cecilia trope, both Raphael and Purcell.

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