Saturday, October 12, 2013

Saint Cecilia

Raphael's S. Cecilia
Wandered off one of Bologna’s porticoes into the back of a huge church - San Giacomo Maggiore (begun in 1267), as I later discovered. In the back wings I found a little old lady manning a postcard stand and an exquisite little oratory, decorated with a ten-fresco cycle of episodes from the life of Saint Cecilia. Of course, I couldn’t resist a visit.

The fescoes were painted (some of them, anyway) by Lorenzo Costa - he of the lovely ‘Annunciation’ I spotted in the Basilica of San Petronio and loved. They were paid for by the rich and powerful Bentivoglio Family, who were big in Bologna in 1488, the year they were commissioned. The little oratory is, in fact, called ‘The Bentivoglio Chapel’. 

The Bentivoglio Chapel

It is also used these days for musical soireés - Saint Cecilia being the patron saint of musicians. Though there’s nothing in her iconography, or in these frescoes, to explain that.

Raphael's S. Cecilia

This lack of evidence hasn’t stopped many a later painter from depicting St Cecilia festooned in musical instruments. In Bologna’s own Pinoteca there’s a wonderful Raphael that does just that.

And the saint’s story? I thought you’d never ask. You might find this one hard to believe, or even follow. Here’s a short version of the story told in the frescoe cycle (and the accompanying booklet, purchased from the little old lady at the postcard stand).

But a warning: the booklet has a disclaimer: "no documents have reached us which describe her actions as a martyr: no real historical evidence exists which proves the most salient aspects of her existence." But as always, there's plenty of myth and archetype to be going on with...

The story...

It's roughly 222 - 230 AD. Cecilia as a young woman is handed over in matrimony to a young pagan named Valeriano. On the wedding night, Cecilia reveals to her husband that she's taken up vows of chastity [or "vowels of chastity" as my booklet puts it] and has granted her purity to Christ. History does not records what the young husband thought of that revelation. Cecilia also reveals that she is protected by one of God's angels, hovering nearby (implication: don't try anything).

Ss. Valeriano and Tiburzio lose their heads.
However, Cecilia invites Valeriano to convert and purify his soul so that he could see his own angel. Valeriano is convinced by her abundant faith and sets out to find the elderly Holy Pope St Urbano (Urban VI). With the help of the poor, he finds the pope at the third mile on the Appian Way. The Pope instructs Valeriano in the Christian faith and baptises him. Back he goes to Cecilia, and they are accompanied by angels with crowns of roses and lilies. All is well.
Into the sarcophagus.
Valeriano then asks if his brother Tiburzio may be allowed to convert; they visit the Pope for Tiburzio's baptism. The two brothers get to work spreading the Word, but run afoul of the prefect of Rome, Turchio Almachio, who had martyred Christians in the past. The two brothers are themselves sentenced to death and decapitated at the fourth mile of the Apian Way, along with a convert named Massimo.

Almachio orders that Cecilia be buried together with Valeriano and Tiburzio in a new sarcophagus on which a Phoenix, symbol of the resurrection, is engraved. Meanwhile, however, the nasty Almachio orders that Cecilia be brought before him for interrogation - he is after the brothers' possessions. He sentences her to be tortured to death by being immersed in boiling liquid (boiling oil?) but she miraculously remains unharmed by the attempt. Clearly annoyed by this, Almachio decides that she must be decapitated, and acts as execution himself. Three blows don't kill her. She survives this attack for three more days, during which time she gives all her possessions to the poor and her house to Pope Urban for the church. Then she dies and is buried by the Pope as a martyr.

After all that , we could do with a little music.

From Raphael's 'S. Cecilia'
From Raphael's 'S. Cecilia'
S. Cecilia as sculpted by Stefano Maderno
in the Church of S. Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome.
Anonymous painting from 1700 in The Bentivoglio Chapel, Bologna
"This painting portrays the exact position of S. Cecilia after her death
as found in S. Callisto catacombs in Rome. It was inspired by the Maderno
sculptor's statue."

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