Arts & Tradition

St. Cecilia and the Musical Celebration of God

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
TIMEJanuary 9, 2022

There’s something about the rhythmic expression we call music that affects us emotionally and spiritually. We love music. We hear it everywhere: in our cars while on our way to work, at work, back in our cars when we go to the grocery store, and yes, even at the grocery store. Almost everywhere we go, music plays.

When I shop with my wife, I often joke that—because of the music I’m hearing—these department stores must want their customers to leave as quickly as possible. Yet no one seems to notice or care. Having so much music, so often, makes me wonder whether we’ve become desensitized to bad music. If so, then how do we recognize good music?

I came across a painting by John William Waterhouse called “Saint Cecilia” that made me think critically about the nature of good music.

Historical Figure

So who was Cecilia? Cecilia lived sometime between the second and fourth centuries and was a virgin martyr of the early Christian church.

As legend has it, she vowed her virginity to God but was forcibly married to a pagan, Valerian. Even though her husband was a pagan, she heard music in her heart when they married. She told her husband that an angel of God wished her to remain a virgin after marriage, and Valerian said he would respect her wishes if he was allowed to see the angel too. She requested that he get baptized, and after his baptism, he saw an angel donning his wife with roses and lilies.

After seeing the angel, Valerian helped the persecuted Christians by burying the bodies of the martyrs after they were executed. Cecilia was also executed for preaching and for giving her possessions away to the poor.

Other than hearing music in her heart on her wedding day, why else is Cecilia the patron saint of music? In her early life, she is thought to have rejected the music playing in her husband’s home. She claimed that she wanted to listen only to heavenly music, which helped her maintain the purity of her body and soul.

Waterhouse’s Sleeping Cecilia

Waterhouse depicted Cecilia sleeping in an ornate, marble chair on the right side of the composition. On her lap rests an illuminated songbook and a rose. Behind her is a rosebush that blooms near her head, and a rose vine winds toward her foot. At the foot of the chair, behind the ancient fountain at the bottom right, are poppy flowers. 

To the left, on the other side of the composition, two angels kneel in front of Cecilia on either side of a small organ that, according to Christie’s, she was playing before she fell asleep. The two angels, dressed in all white to signify their purity, play music for her. A bush of white roses rises around the leg of the angel closest to us and also signifies purity.

St. Cecelia, Waterhouse
“Saint Cecilia,” 1895, by John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas. (Public Domain)

Celebrating God’s Love 

So what does Waterhouse’s painting of St. Cecilia say about music? Why did he depict Cecilia sleeping with an illuminated songbook? Why did he paint roses and poppies instead of roses and lilies—the two flowers traditionally associated with St. Cecilia? And why are the two angels kneeling to play their music in front of her?

Let’s start with the fact that Cecilia is shown asleep with poppies by the foot of her chair. The poppy—a flower associated with oblivion and sleep—suggests several things. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, oblivion can mean freedom from care or worry. In other words, because she closes her eyes to the world, she is oblivious to the cares and worries of the world. In closing her eyes to the world, she transcends the cares and worries of the world.

Detail, St. Cecelia, Waterhouse
Detail of “Saint Cecilia,” 1895, by John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas. (Public Domain)

And what is the source of her transcendence? God’s love is the source of her transcendence, and this is revealed by the rosebush that transcends the poppies and blooms near her head. The rosebush represents God’s love in medieval Christian symbolism. The fact that roses bloom near her head suggests that her mind is on God. 

She also, however, holds a rose on the illuminated songbook in her lap. Illuminated manuscripts are handwritten religious texts that are decorated with precious metals like gold or silver. So, Cecilia’s illuminated songbook would be a book of handwritten hymns to God, and it would be decorated with gold and silver. The rose she holds on the book suggests that these hymns are about God’s love, and she was singing these hymns as she played the organ.

Is it the case that playing the organ and singing the hymns about God’s love are what put her in a state of oblivion—a state of oblivion that is symbolic of her transcending the cares and worries of the world? If so, then the music she plays to celebrate God is also the music that elevates her beyond the cares and worries of the world.

Detail, St. Cecelia, Waterhouse
Detail of “Saint Cecilia,” 1895, by John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas. (Public Domain)

Then, why do the angels kneel at her feet and play music? Why do the angels play music at all? To me, music is a type of adornment. What I mean is that music beautifies and celebrates what it accompanies. Music that accompanies lyrics about money, sex, drugs, and violence beautifies and celebrates those things. Music, however, that accompanies a love of the divine beautifies and celebrates that love. 

Thus, the angels who kneel at Cecilia’s feet are not kneeling to Cecilia as a person or saint; they kneel because she transcends the world by way of music that celebrates God, which is a sacred event. They celebrate her elevation toward God. 

The angels play for Cecilia in her state of oblivion, and since she would have transcended the cares of the world, the music she hears is not of the world. The angels chime in and play their instruments to celebrate Cecilia’s celebration of God’s love. They provide for her a source of pure, heavenly music—the type of music she desires to maintain her own purity.

Does St. Cecilia represent the goodness of music? Does she represent both the music we can produce to celebrate God’s love and the heavenly music that may play within our hearts and minds when we transcend the world? How might we make musical creations that celebrate the divine so that we too may elevate ourselves toward the love of God?

Have you ever seen a work of art that you thought was beautiful but had no idea what it meant? In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret the classical visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We try to approach each work of art to see how our historical creations might inspire within us our own innate goodness.

Eric Bess
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).