Friday, November 22, 2019

"I myself saw her incorrupt" ~ November 22, feast of St. Cecilia

Detail of Stefano Maderno's Saint Cecilia from AD 1600 —
a year after the sculptor had seen the saint's incorrupt remains.
November 22 is the feast day of one of the most ancient female martyrs of the Church – Saint Cecilia of Rome. Unlike many of the other early martyrs I have mentioned in this blog (eg. here, here, here, and here), Saint Cecilia’s Acts are considered by ecclesiastical scholars to be unreliable, having been composed two to three hundred years after her death. That said, there does seem to be broad agreement on some of the basic facts:
  1. There was a Christian martyr named Cecilia. 
  2. She was martyred in Rome. 
  3. She was buried in the catacombs of St. Callixtus in Rome. 
  4. She had a following in Rome that memorialized her from very early times. 
  5. A basilica was built on the site of her house by Pope Urban in the 3rd century AD. 
As mentioned in previous posts on the destruction of Christian books under Diocletian (The Scriptures Destroyed by Fire) and the poetical remark of Prudentius on the same theme (The Oblivion of a Silent Age), the situation of Cecilia as an authentic Christian martyr with a legendary biography composed much later is far from unique. It seems clear that the Christians of the 6th century possessed only fragmentary details of the lives of many of the early martyrs, to which they added considerable pious embellishment.

St. Cecilia from the
6th century mosaics in
St. Apollinare Nuovo
in Ravenna.
The best and most comprehensive Life of Saint Cecilia (note, this link will open a PDF) was written by Abbé Prosper Guéranger and published in English in 1866. It contains her Acts set into a very broad context of the historical milieu in which Cecilia lived—presumably the 220s AD—and going in places very far afield from the main focus of the work. Abbé Guéranger seems to accept many of the romanticized aspects of the Vita, but includes numerous valuable references to Saint Cecilia from ancient ecclesiastical sources.

First among these is the Leonian Sacramentary which Abbé Guéranger calls the most ancient of the Church, the greater part of which was composed by Pope Saint Leo the Great (reigned, AD 440-461). This sacramentary contains a preface dedicated to Saint Cecilia which reads as follows:
“Cecilia, destined by the will of her parents to become the spouse of a mortal, scorned a union which was to last but a short time, and jealous of the crown of chastity, sought an immortal spouse, preferring the honors of everlasting life to the joys of maternity. Her glory is enhanced by her having prevailed upon Valerian to whom she was united in marriage, to join her in the practice of perpetual chastity, and to share with her the crown of martyrdom.” [Taken from Guéranger, Life of Saint Cecilia, page 159]
Cecilia is mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis, probably written sometime in the early 6th century but based on earlier sources, under the entry for Pope Urban I. This contains the following notice:
“[Urban] by his teaching turned many to baptism and faith, and among them Valerianus, a man of high nobility, husband of holy Cecilia.” [Taken from Loomis: Liber Pontificalis, page 21]
In the 1916 edition of the Liber, the editor, Louise Ropes Loomis, includes a helpful notice which indicates that the author of the Liber was probably familiar with the legendary Passion of St. Cecilia. In the same note, she also includes a translation of the earliest version of the Passion as provided in the Acta Sanctorum – the gigantic encyclopedic work begun by the Bollandists of the 17th century which compiles authentic acts of the saints:
Click for more info.
Cecilia, a virgin of lofty rank, carried always the Gospel of Christ hidden in her bosom….She was espoused to a young man, Valerianus….Valerianus found holy Urbanus, the bishop, who had already been twice a confessor and was in hiding among the tombs of the martyrs….
“Dost thouh call thyself that Urbanus whom the Christians entitle their pope? I hear that he is now condemned a second time and again he has betaken himself into hiding for the same cause.”
(Valerianus and Tiburtius, his brother,) were executed with the sword…. The holy Urbanus baptized in her (Cecilia’s) house more than four hundred of both sexes….
Almachius commanded that Cecilia should be brought before him and he asked her, saying…. “Of what state art thou?”
Cecilia said, “A free woman and a noble of high rank.” … The examiner beheaded (Cecilia). [Taken from Loomis: Liber Pontificalis, page 22, Footnote 1]
The above is probably all we can reliably know about the life and death of Saint Cecilia. However, events which transpired after her death related to her cult as a saint and martyr are manifold and more reliable. One such event, which confirms her veneration in Rome of the AD 540s, shows Pope Vigilius confronting the officers of the Empress Theodora in the basilica of St. Cecilia on her feast day:
When Augusta [Theodora] heard this, she sent Anthemius the scribe, with orders and great authority to Rome, saying: “If you find him in the basilica of Saint Peter, let him go. But if you find Vigilius in the Lateran or in the palace or any other church, set him immediately upon a ship and bring him to us. Else, by Him who liveth forever, I will have you flayed.”

And Anthemius the scribe came to Rome and found Vigilius in the Church of Saint Cecilia, November 22, for it was her birthday. And Anthemius took him while he was distributing gifts to the people [scholars interpret this to mean Holy Communion], and brought him down to the Tiber and set him on a ship. The people and the multitude followed him calling out that they would have a prayer from him. And when he had spoken a prayer, all of the people said: “Amen,” and the ship began to move.

The Romans saw that the ship in which Vigilius was seated had begun to move and then commenced to throw stones after him and sticks and dirty vessels and to cry out, “Your hunger go with you! Your pestilence go with you! You have done evil to the Romans; may you find evil where you go!” [Taken from Loomis: Liber Pontificalis, page 156]
More background on this fascinating episode may be found in a previous post: "I am receiving the reward for my deeds" ~ The Miserable Reign of Pope Vigilius, AD 537-555

Fresco of St. Cecilia in the
Catacombs of St. Callixtus.
Click image to enlarge.
The discovery and translation of Cecilia’s relics is a story unto itself. She was apparently buried first in the ancient catacomb of Callistus nearby the tombs of Pope Urban I, Saint Sebastian, St. Quirinus. This portion of the catacomb contains numerous frescos painted between the 5th and 13th centuries, including the one of Cecilia at right. Her relics were lost after the Lombard invasions of the 6th through 8th centuries, and rediscovered by Pope Pascal I in the 9th century, whence they were translated to the Basilica of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere which is traditionally believed to have been built over Cecilia’s house. It was said at the time when Pascal discovered Cecilia’s remains that they were in a state of perfect preservation. About 800 years later, in AD 1599, the sarcophagus was opened again by Cardinal Sfrondrati in the presence of witnesses. Sabine Baring-Gould tells the rest of the story:
It contained a coffin or chest of cypress wood. The Cardinal himself removed the cover. First was seen the costly lining and the silken veil, with which nearly eight centuries before Paschal had covered the body. It was faded, but not decayed, and through the almost transparent texture could be seen the glimmer of the gold of the garments in which the martyr was clad. After a pause of a few minutes, the Cardinal lifted the veil, and revealed the form of the maiden martyr lying in the same position in which she had died on the floor of her father’s hall. Neither Urban nor Paschal had ventured to alter that. She lay there, clothed in a garment woven with gold thread, on which were the stains of blood; and at her feet were the rolls of linen mentioned by Paschal, as found with the body. She was lying on her right side, the arms sunk from the body, her face turned to the ground; the knees slightly bent and drawn together. The attitude was that of one in a deep sleep. On the throat were the marks of the wounds dealt by the clumsy executioner. 
Thus she had lain, preserved from decay through thirteen centuries. When this discovery was made, Pope Clement VIII was lying ill at Frascati, but he empowered Cardinal Baronius and Bosio, the explorer of the Catacombs, to examine into the matter, and both of these have left an account of the condition in which the body was found. 
For five weeks all Rome streamed to the church to see the body; and it was not until Saint Caecilia’s Day that it was again sealed up in its coffin and marble sarcophagus. [Baring-Gould: Virgin Saints and Martyrs, [1901] p. 35]
Cardinal Sfrondrati summoned a young sculptor named Stefano Maderno to immortalize the incorrupt form of St. Cecilia in marble. That sculpture may be seen to this day at the Basilica of St. Cecila. Beneath the statue are words of the artist himself: “So I show to you in marble the representation of the most holy virgin Caecilia, in the same position which I myself saw her incorrupt lying in her sepulchre.”

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