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St. Cecilia: An (Incomplete) History

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Born in c. 200 AD, our records regarding St. Cecilia are incomplete; however, it is generally believed that she was a Roman noblewoman, martyred for her Catholic faith in c. 230 AD together with her husband, Valerian, his brother, Tiburtius, and a Roman soldier, Maximus.

 

Cecilia was said to have made a vow of virginity (as a sign of her devotion to God) but was, nonetheless, forced by her parents to marry a pagan nobleman (Valerian). She sat separately from him during the wedding ceremony, singing to God in her heart – and was thus declared the Patron Saint of Music and Musicians after her death.

 

That night, when the marriage was due for consummation, Cecilia informed her husband that an Angel of the Lord was watching over her, who would punish Valerian if he violated her but would love him if he respected her vow. Valerian asked to see the angel himself. Cecilia told him that he would be able to if he would go to the third milestone on the Via Appia and be baptised by Pope Urban I. After he did this, he witnessed the angel standing next to her with a chaplet of roses and lilies.

 

Both Cecilia’s husband and brother were martyred before her at the hands of the prefect, Turcius Almachius. Cecilia’s martyrdom followed and she was ordered to be burned after giving her possessions to those in poverty – a gesture which infuriated the prefect. When the flames did not harm her, she was beheaded. She is said to have lived for three days after being struck three times on the neck with a sword, and asked the pope to convert her home into a church.

The first record of a music festival in her honour took place in 1570 and was held at Évreux in Normandy. Her feast day, November 22nd, became an occasion for musical concerts, festivals and events, with much music continuing to be written in her honour to this day.

The St. Cecilia International Vocal and Instrumental Music Competition is likewise held in St. Cecilia’s honour for all musicians, recognising her immense bravery, love and devotion to God, as well as the profound impact she has had and continues to have in the musical world long after her death.

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