Patron Saint Devotional Shelf: Santa Cecilia (St. Cecilia)

Santa Cecilia
(photo copyright 2010 F.V.)
A small devotional space in an American-Sicilian household honoring
Santa Cecilia. The saint is depicted holding a lyre.

The term "saint" generally refers to those who are considered holy or blessed. In Roman Catholicism, such an indivdual is usually canonized by the Church after her or his death to officially recognize that individual's special status. A patron saint is a saint who is reguarded as the special supporter or protector of a trade, place, cultural group, family, or person.

A patron saint could be a saint who is associated with a person's occupation (St. Martha, watresses/cooks/housekeepers; St. Nicholas of Myra, academicians/scholars/teachers), a saint who is associated with a person's city of residence (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Baltimore, Maryland), a saint who is associated with a person's family country/region (St.Francis of Assisi, Italy ) or family native village (St. Rosalia, Palermo, Sicily), a saint who champions a cause that is relevant and special to that person (St.Agatha, Breast Cancer Awareness), or a saint who who has the same name. For whichever reason, a person's patron saint has something in common with her/him. A person will theoretically fall under that saint's areas of patronage and thus that saint may have a vested interest in praying to interceed with God on behalf of that person.

In Italy, people often expressed devotion to saints they had grown up with, the patrons of their local village (paese), their local church, their family, their occupation, etc. According to Rue of Rue's Kitchen:

Like all else in the peasant's life, his religion was spatially limited to his particular paese, his native village. This spirit of campanilismo (excessive village loyalty and parochialism) was expressed in the veneration of local sanctities; each paese had its churches and shrines dedicated to its patron saints and madonnas. In religious as in other matters, the contadini subscribed to the system of clientelismo.* (*Clientelismo means patronage of saints, more specifically a special devotion to a particular saint who will provide protection or favors.) God, like the king, was a lofty, distant figure who would hardly have time to listen to the peasant's complaint about his dry cow, but the local saint, as a friend of God, could serve as an intermediary. The cult of the saints thus served as the focus for their formal devotional practices. The saints of Southern Italy were legion: San Rocco, Santa Lucia, San Michele, San Gennaro, la Madonna del Carmine, and many others, some whose names "will not be found in any hagiology." Each saint had special powers to cure a particular disease, to render a certain favor, or to assure success in a trade or occupation; one prayed to San Biagio in case of a throat ache, to Santa Rita for women's ailments, or to San Francesco di Paolo if one were a fisherman. In their entreaties to the saints, the faithful were not simply making prayerful appeals; rather, they regarded these supernatural beings as personalities who could be enlisted in their cause by the performance of certain acts.
-- Cult of Saints, retrieved 2008.
This particular Patron Saint Devotional Shelf has a statue of Santa Cecilia (St. Cecilia), the patron saint of music, musicians, singers, choirists, organists, lutists, composers, luthiers, musical instrument-makers, poets, martyrs, and especially sacred music. Not surprisingly, St. Cecilia is the patron saint of the Academy of Music in Rome, Italy. She is also the patron saint of women named "Cecilia."

Her feast day is celebrated on November 22. Some scholars claim she died in Sicily about the year 176 c.e. Another account states she died in Rome in 230 c.e. St. Cecilia was one of the early martyrs whose story focused upon her unwavering faith and horrible death. On trial, St. Cecilia refused to abjure her Christianity. Sentenced to be burned to ashes in a bath of flame, she sat in the bath for a day and a night without injury. When this method of execution failed, a man was ordered to cut off her head in the bath. He delivered three strokes, but failed to kill her. For some reason, he he did not deliver a fourth, and she was left to bleed to death. Some Christian folks attempted to staunch her severe wounds. For three days, as she lay dying, St. Cecilia continued to pray, preach, and sing the praises of God.

St. Cecilia and her patronage of music represents a good example of how saintly patronage develops.

Earlier in life, St. Cecilia had married Valerian, and she had converted him to Christianity. Both were martyred for their faith and are officially recognized as saints by the Roman Catholic Church.

Apparently, the association of St. Cecilia with music was fully developed by the 15th century. However, this association apparently began in the 14th century.

It had long been a practice to depict saints with certain attributes that they were traditionally associated with. For example, St. Catherine was depicted in saint iconography with a wheel. St. Joseph was depicted with a flowering staff, hammer or carpenter's square. Thus, people were able to quickly identify saints in statuary, paintings and stained glass windows by objects they held or items surrounding them. Artists linked St. Cecilia with music by depicting her with musical instruments, especially the organ, lute, violin, or lyre. This connection to music and song relates some accounts mentioning her singing during her martyrdom.

In the 14th century, St. Cecilia was represented with a portative, a small portable organ, also known as an organetto, in a statuary by Thomas of Modena. The Meister des Bartholomäus-Altars in the 14th century depicted St. Bartholomew flanked by St. Cecilia, playing a portative, with her left hand operating the bellows. A painting by Raphael (1482-1520) depicted St. Cecilia likewise holding a small organ in her hand. Domenichino (1581-1641) portrayed her three times: as a composer holding a quill in her hand, with a portable organ in the background, as a violinist, and finally as a bass-violist. Poussin (1594-1665) depicted her playing what appears to be a two manual harpsichord. In the 18th century, Lawrence (1769-1830) represented her seated by an organ, and Reynolds (1723-1792) portrayed St. Cecilia as a singer. In popular devotional representations, St. Cecilia is often depicted playing the Greco-Roman lyre, but can be holding or playing any other number of type of musical instruments. She is patron over all music--including, it seems, protective lullabies to newborns and songs for safe pregnancies.

St. Cecilia is frequently depicted with different versions of the pipe organ. One acount of her legend claimed she was the inventor of the organ. This mistake appears to have risen from a misinterpretation: "Cantantibus organis in corde suo soli domino decantabat." The Greek word, "organon," and the Latin word, "organum," refer to the human voice, not to the instrument, the pipe organ.

The pipe organ produces sound by driving pressurized air through pipes by use of a keyboard. Historians agree that the hydraulis or hydraulic organ, predated St. Celia. The invention of the hydraulis is attributed to the Ctesibius of Alexandria, a Hellenistic engineer, in the 3rd century bce. The hydraulis, a type of water organ, was the world's first keyboard instrument with wind pipes. The pressurized air supply was created with water pressure. The hydraulis is said to be the predecessor of the modern church organ. The hydraulis was definitely a part of the musical life of ancient Rome. An inflated leather bag in the 2nd century ce replaced the use of the pumps and water regulators of the hydraulis, as an early form of the bellows organ. In the 5th century ce, knowledge of the hydraulic organ and bellows organ were lost in the west with the decline of the western Roman Empire. True bellows began to appear in the 6th or 7th century in the Eastern Empire. In 8th century ce, there are references to the reappearance of the bellows organ in the west. In the 13th century, illuminated manuscripts had miniatures depicting portatives.

The music of St. Cecilia was an outpouring of a heart filled with love for God.

St. Cecilia's significance as a patron of music has been nurtured by poets, writers, painters, sculpters, and musicians. In the early 1940s, W. H. Auden invoked St. Cecilia as the Muse:

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
In gratitude of being allowed to share a photo of this devotional shelf on my website, I decided to share an exerpt from Dryden's verse.

A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687

But oh! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach,
The sacred organ's praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre;
But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An Angel heard, and straight appear'd
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.


As from the pow'r of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator's praise
To all the Blest above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky!

--John Dryden, 1631-1700

Saint Cecilia is petitioned as a muse and for success in the following careers: musicians, singers, choirists, church choir directors, organists, lutists, composers, luthiers, musical instrument-makers, poets, and music in general. Her special day of the week in folk Catholicism is Wednesday. There are those who say her color is green, but apparently kind of pinkish-lavender candles are offered too.

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