Santa Cecilia

Facade of the Santa Cecilia         Entrance       The other side

Facade of the Santa Cecilia  Rome
photos: Krzysztof Golik; entrance: Terence Faircloth and other side: Lalupa

As we arrive in the Via dei Genovesi, we take a right turn to stand in the narrow Via di S. Cecilia. We then continue underneath a gate where we stand near an enclosed garden, with a large antique vase in its centre.

Courtyard       Other side     Aerial picture
Giuseppe Vasi ‘Church and Monastery of St Cecilia of the Benedictine Nuns, 1758

Santa Cecilia courtyard
photo: Terence Faircloth

Guido Reni ‘St. Cecilia’ 1606

This church was likely built on the home of one of the first churches. These were really regular homes from Roman times, used as a Christian church during fixed times. Beneath this church lies a well-preserved home from Roman times. According to some this was the house of St. Caecilia.

Guido Reni ‘St. Cecilia’ 1606

Santa Cecilia         The nave

Santa Cecilia nave Rome
photos: Andres Fagerjord and nave: Rodney

The ciborium Arnolfo di Cambio

Apse and main altar


Ciborium    Top    Matthew     Mark 

Santa Cecilia: ciborium Arnolfo di Cambio

Arnolfo looked closely at the text on Saint Cecilia in the Legenda Aurea (which you can read here).

“During the wedding night, she tells Valerian that an angel is always protecting her virginity. Valerian was keen on meeting that angel. Cecilia said that this could only happen if he was baptised as a Christian. Valerian complied and then went to Cecilia who was in her room talking to the angel. The angel gifted the couple two wreaths, one of roses and one of lilies, from Paradise, the fragrance of which would never disappear. Valerian was so impressed that he convinced his only brother Tiburtius to convert to Christianity. After both brothers then converted a high official, they were beheaded by order of the city prefect Almachius. Cecilia secretly buried their bodies and was subsequently arrested and made to sacrifice to the idols. Needless to say, she refused.  A furious Almachius then had her boiled day and night at her own home, but Cecilia experienced the bath as cold and never broke a sweat. Almachius thus ordered to have her beheaded in her bath. An executioner struck down on Cecilia’s neck three times, but was not able to separate her head from her body. According to the law, there could not be a fourth attempt and so Cecilia was left alone, barely alive. In the three days she still lived, she donated her palace to the church.’
Source: Paul Verheijen

Santa Cecilia: ciborium Arnolfo di Cambio: Cecilia
photos: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

Saint Cecilia      Wise virgin with an oil lamp

On the four corners, Cambio places the persons described in the Legenda Aurea: Cecilia, her husband Valerian, his brother Tiburtius and pope Urban I.  There is no conclusive consensus on who is Tiburtius, and who is Valerian (See Ragnhild Marthine Bø ‘The Iconography of the Gothic Ciborium in Rome, c. 1285-137″ download pdf pp. 4 t/m7). Aside from the Legenda Aurea, Arnolfo also uses the Bible: Matthew 25:1-13. This tells the story of 10 virgins, 5 of whom were sages. The sages had provided the oil lamps with extra oil.

Santa Cecilia mosaic in the apse cap 9th century      In situ

Santa Cecilia mosaic in the apse cap 9th century Rome
photos: Sailko

“The apse cap and apse arch were donated by Pope Paschal circa 820. Christ is depicted in the apse as a pantocrator. Against a dark blue background, Christ floats down over a colourful carpet of clouds, above him is the hand of God the Father with a laurel wreath. Christ is surrounded on the left by Paul (with book), Cecilia (with diadem) and the founder Pope Paschal with the square nimbus of a living person (with church model) as well as on the right by Simon Peter (with keys), Valerian with martyr’s crown (hidden) and a female saint (also with martyr’s crown), probably Agatha as the patron saint of the monastery, which was founded by Paschal next to the basilica. At the edge of the mosaic we see a fruit-bearing palm, to the top left the founding pope with a phoenix (as a symbol of the resurrection). The monogram of the founder can be seen at the beam on top. The bottom register has six lambs on each side, symbolising the apostles; from the jewel-set cities of Jerusalem (left) and Bethlehem (right) to the Lamb God in the centre. The inaugural inscription continues under the frieze with lambs.”
Source: Wikipedia (German)

Santa Cecilia mosaic: Pope Paschal Rome
photos: Lawrence OP

Pope Paschal and Saint Cecilia
F.l.t.r. St. Paschal, St. Cecilia, St. Paul and Christ

The mosaic text in the apse says:
[Constructed with various enamels, this spacious house glitters / which in former times had been broken down: / Paschal, a munificent bishop, has founded in superior wise this hall of the Lord / establishing it on a brilliant foundation. / These golden mysteries of the (Dindyma is a Greek word) of the Church resound with gems. / Rejoicing in God’s love, he united here the holy bodies: / here youth glows ruddy in its bloom for Cecilia and her companions / who formerly rested their blessed limbs in the cemeteries (=Gr. krypta). Adorned for aye, Rome ever exults in triumph. Source: Tyler Lansford  “The Latin Inscriptions of Rome: A Walking Guide” 13.13A.

Saint Cecilia

Saint Cecilia: Stefano Maderno 'St. Cecilia'
photo: Richard Mortel

Cecilia was a proper Christian who converted her husband and brother. The three of them looked after the martyrs. When her brothers convert an officer, things take a turn for the worst. Both are executed. Of course, Cecilia would not escape unscathed either. First the Romans try to end her life as she is sitting in her bath tub. It failed as Cecilia continued chanting hymns. A sword was drawn next against this tenacious Christian lady. The executioner swung his blade three times, but this too caused a lot of problems. Her head was not entirely separated and Cecilia lived for several days more. In that time, she managed to convert many a heathen.

Stefano Maderno ‘St. Cecilia’ 1600      In situ

Stefano Maderno 'St. Cecilia' 1600
photos: Xuan Che in situ: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

As we arrive inside the church and the main altar to see the famous statue Stefano Maderno, we can see where the sword struck her body. At times you can hear the nuns chanting the hymns of Cecilia. The sound is coming from behind bars to the left in the aisle. On Cecilia’s saint day, many Christian choirs perform cantatas in her name.

The discovery of the grave in the St. Cecilia in 1599

Cardinal Paolo Camillo Sfondrati      Tomb of Sfondrati

At midnight on 31 December 1599, Pope Clement VIII opened the Porta Sancta in the presence of 80000 faithful, ushering in the Holy Year 1600. Rome looked stunning in that year.

One year earlier, cardinal Paolo Camillo Sfondrati had commissioned a renovation of the St. Cecilia for the Holy Year. That renovation uncovered the grave of Saint Cecilia.

“The martyr was clothed in her antique robe, embroidered with gold, upon which the glorious marks of her virginal blood were still apparent;! at her feet was the linen stained with the purple of her martyrdom. She was lying upon her right side, and seemed to be in a profound sleep. The neck still bore the marks of the wounds made by the lietor’s sword; the head, by a mysterious and touching curvature, was turned towards the bottom of the coffin. The body was found perfectly entire, whilst the graceful and modest figure of the saint, preserved so miraculously after so many centuries, vividly re- called the martyr breathing her last sigh upon the pavement of her Caldarmm. The spectators were transported in spirit to the day when Urban had re- closed the coffin, without disturbing the attitude which the virgin had chosen to yield up her soul to her immortal Spouse.” Source; ‘Life of Saint Cecelia, virgin and martyr’ 276 pp. 269-270 pdf

Cardinal Paolo Camillo Sfondrati  detail tomb
photos: Sailko

The remarkable discovery of St. Cecilia had to be eternalized in the church devoted to her. The remains of Cecilia were buried below the main altar. Cardinal Sfondrati commissioned the sculptor Stefano Maderno to carve a statue of Cecilia. Stefano Maderno, who had attended this burial, immediately drew up a sketch. He used this drawing for his statue. “The form [of her body] is so natural and lifelike, so full of modesty and grace, that one scarcely needs the sculptor’s testimony graven on the base: “Behold the body of the most holy virgin Cecilia whom I myself saw lying incorrupt in her tomb. I have in this marble expressed for thee the same saint in the very same posture of body.” Source

Saint Cecilia: Stefano Maderno 'St. Cecilia'
photo: Richard Mortel

A porphyry inlay in the floor in front of the reliquary made by the sculptor Stefano Maderno in 1599. The text reads:

See the body of the most blessed virgin Cecilia
Whom I witnessed in the grave
For you I shaped this marble into her
Exactly as she was witnessed

Stefano Maderno ‘St. Cecilia’ 1600

Stefano Maderno ‘St. Cecilia’ 1600
photo: Alvesgaspar

The use of black and white marble, as well as the contrast between the white statue and the dark niche, creates a striking visual effect reminiscent of the chiaroscuro technique used by the Baroque painter Caravaggio.

Santa Cecilia: Entrance choir nuns Rome
photo: Eric Parker

Entrance to the choir of the nuns      Openings hours

Fortunately, we can see the work of 13th century painter Pietro Cavallini at this hour. Ring the bell here, left side of the courtyard, for a visit to the frescos. The Web Gallery of Art has a digital version of the fresco. We can probably still see the work by 17th century Dutch painter Paulus Bril.

Entrance to the choir of the nuns      Cavallini’ Last Judgement c. 1293
In situ      Christ

Santa Cecilia: Entrance choir nuns Rome
photo: Teggelaar

We walk towards the back to the left aisle, with a door leading to what was likely the bathroom of Cecilia. This is where she was allegedly cemented in for her to suffocate, but that never happened. You can still see the terracotta pipes used by Romans as piping for their baths.

Entrance ticket office      Stairs

Finally, we head for Cecilia’s home under the church. We first walk back to the entrance. To the right, in the aisle, we can access a small staircase leading down. In the church it is S. Cecilia who watches over the faithful, but in the ancient villa below the church is it the goddess Minerva who watches over the visitor.

Santa Cecilia: ticket office insula Rome
photo: Teggelaar

Goddess Minerva

Santa Cecilia: goddess Minerva   insula
photo: Lalupa

As we arrive downstairs, we first look at the crypt where St. Cecilia lies buried.


Santa Cecilia insula Rome
photo: Sailko
Santa Cecilia insula Rome
photo: Sailko

Unfortunately, everything has changed quite drastically around 1900.

Giuseppe Cesari ‘Clemens VIII’ c. 1598

You should see for yourself if Bomans was right. Cecilia was first buried in the catacombs of Calixtus (and according to some others in Praetextatus). In 821, her body was transferred to the crypt we are now standing in. In the late 16th century, by rule of Clemens VIII, her sarcophagus was opened and to their amazement her body was still intact and wrapped in a gold blanket. 

Finally, we take a look at Cecilia’s house, which is still in good condition. Although, to some, it’s been restored a bit too nicely.

Giuseppe Cesari 'Clemens VIII' c. 1598

Santa Cecilia crypt

Santa Cecilia crypt Rome
photo: Mumbler Jamie

Santa Cecilia crypt

Santa Cecilia crypt Altar wall Rome
photos: Lawrence OP

We must definitely leave this church by 18.00, or else we’ll find ourselves in darkness. It happened to me once. I didn’t like it. We return to the hotel by foot or by bus.

End of Rome