By Anne Leader
Today is the Feast Day of Saint Cecilia, an early Christian martyr memorably celebrated in fresco by Italian Baroque painter Domenichino. The artist was commissioned in 1612 by Cardinal Pierre Polet to decorate a chapel in the Roman church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The frescoes, which betray Domenichino’s appreciation of Renaissance master Raphael, commemorate important events from Cecilia’s life. Born to a wealthy Roman family, Cecilia converted to Christianity, then illegal, and gave away her wealth and possessions to the poor. Brought before the Emperor, she refused to worship a pagan idol and was sentenced to death. Because of her charity, faith, and willingness to die for her beliefs, she was granted the martyr’s crown and taken up into heaven.
She is the patron saint of musicians and church music, and is often shown with an instrument, as seen in an altarpiece by Raphael, which was copied by Guido Reni for the Polet chapel’s altar in 1598. Reni painted her again according to his own design in 1606.
Interest in and devotion to Cecilia intensified at the turn of the seventeenth century when her body was found uncorrupted under the floor of her titular church in Rome. Stefano Maderno famously recorded how she appeared in a marble sculpture commissioned to decorate her tomb after 1600.
Domenichino, Scenes from the Life of St. Cecilia: Cecilia Before the Judge; Cecilia Distributing Alms; and Martyrdom of St. Cecilia,1612-15, frescoes, Polet Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
Raphael, St. Cecilia, oil on panel (transferred to canvas), 1514, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna
Stefano Maderno, St. Cecilia, marble, 1600, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome
Guido Reni, St. Cecilia, 1606, oil on canvas, Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena