We all know the Simon and Garfunkel song “Oh Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart…Whoah-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.” Now that it’s officially stuck in your head, would it surprise you to know that “Oh Cecilia” is named after Saint Cecilia of Rome, the patron saint of musicians? While I am quite sure the rest of the song is not actually referring to Cecilia of Rome herself because she was a virgin and martyr, and not a girl who spent the afternoon in one’s bed if you know what I mean, it is said that the song may refer to the “frustration and fleeting inspiration of songwriting.” Interesting fact: St. Cecilia is mentioned in another Paul Simon song, "The Coast" (from his 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints): "A family of musicians took shelter for the night in the little harbor church of St. Cecilia…"
The story goes that Cecilia was a stunningly beautiful noble woman who walked ancient Rome in the 3rd century. She was young, probably between 12-15 years old, when she was betrothed to a young pagan man named Valerian. Cecilia had a very close relationship with God and was visited by angels on a regular basis who told her she must remain a virgin, a big ask for someone about to get married at the height of puberty.
At the ceremony, Cecilia sang to God (one reason she’s the patron Saint of musicians) with all her heart to keep her wits about her and honor the miracle of virginity within an arranged marriage. On their wedding night, she begged Valerian to keep her innocence instead of consummating and said that an angel was watching over them. When the bridegroom asked to see this angel for himself, Cecilia told him he would only be able to witness this miracle of heaven if he converted to Christianity was baptized – a big ask for a young pagan man who just got married and is ready to, ya know, consummate. He obliged, and an angel with fiery wings appeared to them after his baptism:
“…two crowns interwoven with roses and lilies, one of which he placed upon the head of Cecilia, and the other upon that of Valerian.” Then Valerian said to his pagan brother: “Thou wilt then know Him whose blood is crimson as roses, whose flesh is white as lilies. Cecilia and I wear crowns which thy eyes cannot yet behold. The flowers of which they are composed, are brilliant as purple, and spotless as snow.” (from Prosper Guéranger’s Life of Cecilia: Virgin and Martyr)
Cecilia, Valerian, and Valerian’s brother Tiburtius, all now devout followers of Jesus, helped to convert over 400 pagan people of Rome in a time that Christians were being persecuted by death. Valerian and Tiburtius were murdered in the streets for openly expressing their beliefs and Cecilia refused to hide or stand idly by. Her persecutors sought her out while preaching to people outside of the church.
It is said that Cecilia was first taken to the Roman steam baths and locked in, a sufferable way to perish. Instead, the bystanders could hear her angelic voice singing to the heavens (another reason Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians). Well past the time anyone else would have passed out, the steam baths were opened and to the astonishment of the crowd gathered, Cecilia walked out completely unscathed. She was then sentenced to a beheading. After three strikes of the sword, her head did not sever, and Cecilia was left bleeding in the streets for three days before she finally passed. While she lay in waiting of sure and agonizing death, Cecilia’s exquisite voice echoed (yet another reason for her patronage), singing God’s praises to her friends that gathered around in mourning. Afraid to move her body, they sat next to her praying and soaked up their handkerchiefs and garments with her precious blood, knowing she was favored in God’s eyes.
An incredible baroque sculpture of Saint Cecilia by Stefano Maderno is displayed in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome. It was created after the supposed incorrupt body of Cecilia (and supposedly first known incorrupt body of a Saint!) was found entombed under the altar of the church in 1600.
While Cecilia’s story could easily be mistaken for a young Juliet-like ingénue on the Shakespearean stage, there are accounts that she actually existed. Whether she was truly a young angelic virgin, visited regularly by fiery-winged angels, with a crown of roses and lilies upon her head that no one could see, who converted her pagan husband and 400+ people, was tortured in a steam bath, gruesomely attempted to be beheaded, laid dying in the streets for 3 days bleeding from her neck, all while singing God’s praises for her sufferings, conversions, and martyrdom, leaves a lot of questions we can never truly answer. We may not know for sure that a 3rd century martyr had these experiences, but we do know she has inspired generations with her fantastical story of song. You can find her name venerated through music notes and lyrics from classical church hymns to rock and roll and everything in between.