Homages to a Heroine (On Saint Cecilia)

Since times of old, heroes have been praised in song, verse, and the plastic arts. Monuments in stone, paint, and word praise the deeds of such men as Odysseus, Achilles, and Aeneas. Holy Writ narrates the valor of the Judges, King David, Sampson, and the Maccabees. In the English language, one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature is Beowulf, an heroic epic poem that sings the mighty deeds of its eponymous warrior-king. Pagan or Jew or Christian, our race has always made the hero an object of praise and adulation.

The most merciful coming of our Savior ushered in innumerable changes to the thoughts and ideals of men. In the area of heroism, there was this significant alteration: By conceiving the virtue of fortitude (the heroic virtue par excellence) differently than the pagan world did, Christendom held the prototypical hero to be the martyr, not the warrior — although the virtuous Christian warrior, who is also heroic, was not despised, since his profession gave us most of the saints of the first centuries of the new dispensation.

This development opened up heroic status to women, who could be martyrs but not (in any Christian civilization) warriors.

Moreover, by extolling the virtue of purity, and even of virginity, the Church brought into existence a whole different model of human goodness: the consecrated celibate. By this two-fold change extolling the martyr and the virgin, the Church gradually subdued the beasts of Behemoth and Leviathan — lust and cruelty — accomplishing much to transform the human race that she regenerates in Christ. Thus did the Church render to earth and Heaven the virgin-martyr, a heroine more worthy of celebration than Odysseus, Achilles, and Aeneas.

One of the great virgin-martyrs that the Church honors is the scion of the ancient and noble Roman family of the Caecilii, Saint Cecilia, whose feast-day is November 22.

That she is honored in the very heart of the Roman Church’s worship, the Canon of the Holy Mass, is the best praise that could be given her. There she is set amid a lovely septet of heroines, the martyrs Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, and Anastasia. All but the matron, Saint Perpetua, were virgins as well.

Saint Cecilia, by John William Waterhouse, 1895 (source)

But the great importance of the liturgical honors shown her — including the magnificent hymns, responsories, and antiphons accompanying her office —do not detract from the fact that this little heroine has an impressive collection of artistic monuments raised to her honor. To name but a few of the musical and poetic works dedicated to her: John Dryden’s poem, “A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day”; Alexander Pope’s verse, “Ode on Saint Cecilia’s Day”; “The Second Nun’s Tale,” one of the Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, in which the nun tells the story of Saint Cecilia; Henry Purcell’s musical tribute, “Ode to Saint Cecilia”; George Frederic Handel’s “Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day” (a musical setting of Dryden’s poetry); and a beautiful Mass setting composed by Charles Gounod: Messe Solennelle de Sainte Cecile. Benjamin Britten, who was born on her feast day (as President Kennedy was assassinated on it), composed a choral work, “Hymn to Saint Cecilia,” which sets three poems by W. H. Auden to music.1 With the exception of Gounod’s Mass (in Latin), all of the texts of these works are in English. There are many more poetic and musical tributes to her in other languages.

No doubt, the many poems in her honor have something to do with the fact that she is the patroness of poets, just as the musical works celebrating the virgin-martyr owe their origin principally to the fact that she is the patroness of musicians.2 This latter patronage, by the way, originates in a passage from her Acts, which the Church employs in her liturgical office: “Amid the harmony of musical instruments [during her wedding feast], the virgin Cecilia sang in her heart to the Lord alone, saying: Let my heart, O Lord, and my body be spotless, that I may not be confounded.” Concerning this prayer to God, Dom Prosper Guéranger wrote, “It was this silent melody, superior to all earthly concerts, that inspired the happy idea of picturing St. Cecilia as the queen of harmony, and proclaiming her patroness of the most attractive of arts.” Whether or not she herself was a musician, it is a good thing that musicians have not ignored their patron saint.

Of the copious paintings and sculptures of her, I will only mention three. First, the ninth-century apse mosaics in the Church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere (Rome). Next, John William Waterhouse’s 1895 oil on canvas, currently in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Finally, Stefano Maderno’s magnificent sculpture, “Saint Cecilia,” which worthily graces the high altar of the Church in Trastevere. While it is the genuine work of Maderno’s competent hand, this image owes its origins to a miracle: In 1599, when her body was exhumed, Cecilia’s body was discovered to be incorrupt, so much so that her wounds appeared freshly made. Maderno, charged to sculpt what he saw, rendered a peaceful yet powerful image of innocence, modesty, and delicate beauty.

On a marble slab near the famous statue is carved this statement of the artist, which he made under oath: “Behold the body of the most holy virgin Cecilia, whom I myself saw lying incorrupt in the tomb. I have in this marble expressed for you the same saint in the very same posture.”

The precious relics of the virgin-martyr are directly underneath Maderno’s masterpiece, in the graceful crypt church. They are so situated that a priest offering Mass (or a pilgrim looking at the altar) will see straight into her tomb.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that the great Abbot I’ve already quoted, Dom Prosper Guéranger, wrote a masterful volume on the Saint, Saint Cecilia. The book is a defense of the saint’s cult against the attacks of cynical liberal historians. It was written at the request of his disciple, the Benedictine Abbess, Madame Cécile Bruyère.

All these artistic homages are to a little Roman girl who pledged her virginity to Christ in childhood, and converted the husband that she could not avoid marrying, Valerian, along with his brother, Tiburtius. She did this by promising her betrothed that he would see the angel that guarded her virginity only if he received Baptism, for which she directed them to Bishop Urban (an auxiliary of Pope Eleutherius), who instructed and baptized them both. Valerian, upon receiving Baptism, saw the angel, respected his wife’s virginal consecration to Christ, and, with his brother, soon died a martyr. Saints Valerian and Tiburtius preceded their little evangelist to martyrdom.

The brief history of Saint Cecilia features the pope, sacraments, an angel, virginity, miracles, martyrdom, and fruitful apostolic zeal. In short, it is a Catholic tale that is both doctrinaire and devotional. On the one hand, it seems ironic that generations of aesthetes, including many unbelievers, have hymned her praises. On the other hand, unbelieving aesthetes have souls, too, and Saint Cecilia has no doubt used their art as a channel of grace to capture some of them with her holy charms, as she did Valerian and Tiburtius.

“The two pillars of chivalry: purity and fortitude — they could transform the earth,” said Brother Francis. There, in one short apothegm, is contained the power and wonder of Saint Cecelia, a heroine truly worthy of our homage.

  1. Some readers may be aware that both Britten and Auden were homosexuals. My listing them here certainly not an endorsement of their proclivities. Neither am I particularly fond of their work, for that matter.
  2. She is also patroness of musical instrument makers and of the Diocese of Omaha Nebraska.