Santa Cecilia

June 20, 2013 / Art & Archaeology
Rome, Lazio

cecilia2The story goes that Santa Cecilia (the c‘s pronounced like “ch” in children) was a 2nd century young Roman Christian woman whose home first became a place of worship and then a church after her martyrdom. While the church is interesting in its own right, the altar merits particular attention.

Legend has it that the first attempt to execute her (by locking her in her own hot water bathhouse) did not work – divine intervention. The persecutors then decided to execute her by decapitation, but here too a miracle occurred and after the third strike the executioner refused to continue (and supposedly ran off and converted). Cecilia then died three days later from the wounds.

cecilia4Fast forward about 1200 years to 1599 when a certain Cardinal Sfrondati decides to exhume her body. In the presence of many prelates and of the artist Maderno, the coffin is opened and Santa Cecilia is found in her immaculate white burial robe, body uncorrupted, neck wounds still fresh and blood just coagulated.

Maderno is commissioned to make a statue for her altar and decides to portray her just as he remembered. This statue, early baroque in its “show things as they are” tone, is quite touching precisely due to its unadorned, direct sadness. With just the wound on her neck and the position of her hands and fingers, Maderno makes you feel intense grief for this young woman from almost 2000 years ago… marble work at its absolute best.



by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

15 Responses to “Santa Cecilia”

  1. Margie

    What a touching story! Never knew that about St. Cecelia! GB, once again, you have enlightened us with a nugget from history!

  2. Joan Schmelzle

    Again a great post about my favorite city. This is a church I try to visit every time I’m in Rome. Used the link to your 2008 post and found it covered what I was hoping to read. I always try to do the “underground” wander too. The sculpture is indeed a moving sight. Without rummaging through several books I can’t be sure, but did I once read that the fingers of her hands as found in the tomb were arranged to signify the Trinity? A nice story addition if I am remembering correctly.
    Thanks again for your great Rome article. I like the others too, but Rome is always my favorite.

  3. Rita Mantone

    Three fingers on one hand, represent the Holy Trinity, the other hand with one finger pointing out, tells us there is one God in three Divine persons.

    I love Santa Cecelia. My husband and I plan on spending a month in Trastevere and one apartment we are considering is steps away from her church!

  4. Paula Abbas

    Beautiful and interesting…so sorry I missed this when I was in Rome. I love “Italian Notebook”. A wonderful way to keep in touch with the most beautiful country I have ever traveled to. I’m ready to go back…..

  5. We visited St Cecilia’s a few years ago, having seen a Risk Steve’s special on Rome and Trastevere. The photos here are wonderful but fail (as all photos must) of capturing the beauty of the altar and this statue. We learned that (according to legend) Cecilia sang the Psalms during the time they tried to kill her in her super-heated steam bath. This is why she is the patron saint of musicians!. Also, note she is extending three fingers on her right hand (Italians use the thumb as the count) indicating the Trinity while she extend one finger on her left, indicating one God. This little church is well worth finding!

  6. Debra Duckman

    If the timing is right and the Nuns allow entry [for a small fee],you may be able to see the Cavallini frescos in the choir loft. Plus….as we learned from GB, there is a lovely small restaurant to the right of the church named Roma Sparita where they serve a fabulous Cacio e Pepe pasta. Across the street is a really nice ceramic shop called Arte Da Usare with unusual pieces and nice helpful people.

    • GB

      Hi Janet, it’s in trastevere, a bit further down from the island. Piazza santa cecilia.

  7. francesco costa

    stupenda e crudele storia! e in quel sotterraneo che si allunga sotto la basilica si percepisce la pace dei millenni! bravo, gb! ciao, f.

  8. This is such an interesting post! I’ve walked by Santa Cecilia several times in my past trips but never stepped inside (I agree the the Cacio e Pepe at Roma Sparita is fabulous).

    I’ll be in Rome next spring so I’ll be sure to visit here.


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