Who was St Cecilia? Meet the patron saint of music and musicians, who is still celebrated today

22 November 2023, 10:00 | Updated: 22 November 2023, 10:54

St Cecilia Playing The Organ painted by Jacques Stella, Musée du Louvre, Paris.
St Cecilia Playing The Organ painted by Jacques Stella, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

In the 3rd century, Roman noblewoman Cecilia was martyred for her beliefs. Today, we still celebrate her as the patron saint of music...

St Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians.

Legend has it that the 3rd-century Roman noblewoman Cecilia vowed her virginity to an angel of God. When she was married against her will, Cecilia sat apart from at her wedding, singing ‘in her heart’ to God as the musicians played.

It was this act that would later earn her the patronage of music.

Cecilia told her husband of her vow of virginity, and that if he tried to violate that vow he would be punished by the angel that watched over her. Her husband promised to uphold her wish only if he saw the angel himself.

All he had to do, she said, was be baptised and he would be able to see. He did so, and he was met by the vision of Cecilia talking to the angel. His brother followed suit, and after beholding the visions, both brothers were martyred.

St Cecilia is usually depicted playing various kinds of musical instruments, and often accompanied by angels.
St Cecilia is usually depicted playing various kinds of musical instruments, and often accompanied by angels. Picture: Getty

Cecilia would pass through further tribulations before she herself was martyred – she distributed her belongings to the poor and this elicited enough rage from the powers-that-be that they ordered her execution.

There are several stories told about how Cecilia was martyred, each as gruesome as the next.

One tells that she was burned at the stake. Her purity protected her, though, and she wasn’t harmed.

Another says that she was condemned to suffocate, shut for 24 hours in a Roman bathhouse as the coals were piled onto the fire and the temperature spiked. But this wasn’t successful either, and Cecilia allegedly barely broke a sweat.

So, according to both stories, they beheaded her instead... except that didn’t work either.

Many versions of the tale say that three attempts were made to execute Cecilia with a sword, and yet she lived through each one.

She remained alive for another three days, during which time she spoke to the pope to request that her home be made into a church.

From this violent end, Cecilia became St Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians. Her final resting place is Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, a 5th-century church in Rome.

Read more: The story of Maria Theresia von Paradis, the blind pianist, singer and composer who inspired Mozart

When is St Cecilia’s day celebrated?

St Cecilia’s Day is on 22 November, and musical celebrations marking the patron saint of music are held around that date every year.

The first report of a music festival held in her honour was in Normandy in 1570. Many composers, including Purcell, and Britten who himself was fittingly born on St Cecilia Day, have written works in St Cecilia’s honour.

Choir sings exquisite rendition of Allegri's 'Miserere mei, Deus'

Help Musicians’ annual Festival of St Cecilia

Musicians’ charity Help Musicians hosts an annual celebration of St Cecilia, which usually takes place at Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Cathedral, and features their great choirs and other wonderful musicians and guests.

For 2020, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the celebration went ahead – but online. And the charity partnered with Cathedral Music Trust, which supports cathedrals and choral music in the UK and beyond, to showcase wonderful and poignant performances and messages in a time that’s tested the classical music world.

The celebration featured performances by Westminster Cathedral Choir, Gloucester Cathedral Choir and British soprano Natalya Romaniw, as well as appearances from composer and conductor John Rutter, Help Musicians ambassador Isata Kanneh-Mason, and president of Cathedral Music Trust, Harry Christophers.