By Brian Gabriel
The very beautiful and highly illuminated stained glass windows which make up the display above the organ and choir gallery in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Blarney, depict, appropriately, the martyred Saint Cecilia – Patron Saint of Church Music. The main display is made up of five interconnecting circles, the centre one of which displays St. Cecilia holding an organ in her left hand. The four outer circles each show an angel with a musical instrument, a lute, cymbals, triangle and an organ. They are depicted, surrounded by an entwined vine with hanging bunches of grapes. Saint Cecilia’s right hand is raised and there something akin to an ecstatic look on her face as she listens to the surrounding angels singing and playing. There are then four smaller, separate, circular windows again showing vines and grapes.
Cecilia, according to Church legend, was of noble birth and dedicated her life to God with a vow of chastity from a young age. Her name is Latin meaning ‘blind’ or ‘sixth’ and is the feminine form of Cecil. She was to be married to a young nobleman named Valerian but on the wedding day “as the musicians played, she sang in her heart to God only (“cantantibus organis illa in corde suo soi domino decantabat”): possibly the cantantibus organis was erroneously interpreted of Cecilia as an organist. In this way the saint was brought into closer relation with music.” She was made patroness of The Academy of Music at Rome when it was founded in 1584. It is only from the late 15th century that she is associated with music when artists began painting her singing or playing the organ, often surrounded by cherubim. She was then also declared Patron Saint of church music. Prior to this period she was never depicted or associated with music but was often portrayed with a palm and gospel in her hands or without any emblem at all. She is also a patron saint of Poets
She was martyred for her beliefs and for refusing to worship Roman gods. She was first placed in a burning bath (caldarium) in her own house to be suffocated by steam but when this did not work a soldier was ordered to behead her. This also failed because after three strokes of the axe her head was not fully severed. By law at the time only three strokes could be administered so she was left to die which occurred after three days of agony. She was originally entombed in the Cemetery of Callistus before being exhumed, incorrupt, in the early 9th century and placed in a church, built by Pope Paschal, over the ruins of her home. This cemetery was the burial place of some of the early popes and is reputed to have held 500,000 tombs in its time. It is probably the most important historical cemetery in Rome. Cecilia’s body, witnessed by a number of people including a sculptor, was exhumed during restoration of the church in 1599, and was still found to be incorrupt, complete with the axe-cuts. The sculptor made a statue of Cecilia depicting her as he saw her when she was found. Her relics still lie in the Basilica Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome.
Many famous composers have written music commemorating the saint, with the following three being some of the more notable.
George Friderick Handel composed the music for ‘Ode to St. Cecilia’s Day’ in 1736. Henry Purcell composed ‘Hail! Bright St. Cecilia,’ in 1692. Benjamin Britten composed ‘Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op. 27’ in 1942.
The first record of music being played in her honour is at Evreux in Normandy in1570.
There are five masses written in her honour.
Her Feast Day is celebrated on 22nd November.