Everything about the experience of Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere impresses humility on its beholders, despite the site’s innate grandeur. This titular church resides below the Viale di Trastevere, away from the tourists in the Basilica di Santa Maria and set apart from any packed piazzas. In typical Roman fashion, one has to navigate with perseverance the tiny cobbled alleyways before arriving at the quiet destination. Beyond a tranquil courtyard sits the medieval church (with a Baroque facade) built on top of the ruins of Saint Cecilia’s own home. Once inside, you are gravitationally drawn to the central altar – not by the colorful apse (that is only lighted for mass) nor the 13th-century ciborium, but by the pure gleam of a sculpture lying just below one’s line of vision in a black-marble niche: Stefano Maderno’s masterpiece, Santa Cecilia. It is one of very few pieces we have from this obscure artist of the late 16th century, and by far his best. Maderno was supposedly very young when Cardinal Sfondrato commissioned this piece in 1599, in the midst of massive excavations and restorations of the church – in fact, the astonishing sculpture was most likely Maderno’s first public commission.
Even without any context, it is a most unusual sculpture, guaranteed to provoke deep emotion. The completely obscured face of the martyr, turned down into the ground and away from her spectators, is incredibly striking. It both represents and inspires introspection. As Maderno’s first public commission, it surely is a strong and deft statement. While the saint’s linens and form are rendered beautifully, and certainly add to the overall impact, the mere visual absence of Saint Cecilia’s face dramatizes and animates the piece in masterfully.
Before exploring the sculpture itself further, let me first briefly provide the story of Saint Cecilia. She was a Roman aristocrat living in the 2nd century A.D. who was martyred either in 230 under Emperor Alexander Severus or earlier, sometime between 176-180, under Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The Legenda Aurea (a medieval collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Voragine) tells us that Cecilia, herself a Christian, was wed at a young age to another Roman named Valerian. Determined to preserve her virginity in her devotion to God, Cecilia told Valerian:
angelum Dei habeo amatorem, qui nimio zelo custodit corpus meum. Hic si vel leviter senserit, quod tu me polluto amore contingas, statim feriet te et amittes florem tuae gratissimae juventutis, si autem cognoverit, quod me sincero amore diligas, ita quoque diliget te sicut me et ostendet tibi gloriam suam.”1
In her plea to Valerian, Cecilia clearly cherishes the sanctity of her body and fears any impure touch and draws a distinction between a love that is “polluto” and one that is “sincero.” Her love for God requires that she protect herself, and thus her body, from any sort of “polluto amore.” She threatens Valerian that, should he touch her, his “florem…gratissimae juventutis” will be snatched away by God – and this is surely the fate that she herself is desperate to avoid. Preservation of her own “florem” is of utmost importance. Cecilia in fact succeeded in converting her husband, and so their marriage remained a spiritual one.
The story of her martyrdom continues the theme of the saint’s sacred body. By defying the Roman prefect Turcius Almachius and asserting her Christianity, Cecilia ensured her execution. Almachius first tried to have her die in her own “bulliente balneo,” or burning bath, but her body was immune to the heat. Almachius then tried to have her beheaded:
Quam spiculator tribus ictibus in collo percussit, sed tamen caput eius amputare non potuit, et quia decretum erat, ne quartum percussionem decollandus acciperet, eam semivivam cruentus carnifex dereliquit. Per triduum autem supervivens omnia, quae habebat, pauperibus tradidit et omnes, quos ad fidem converterat, Urbano episcopo commendavit dicens: triduanas mihi iudicias postulavi, ut nos tuae beatitudini commendarem et hanc domum meam in ecclesiam consecrates.”2
While her body’s purity is not quite enough to save her life, her ability to live on for three more days “semivivam” did allow her to give her possessions to the poor and dedicate her home to the church. If you visit the Basilica today, you can enter the scavi below and see the remains of what was quite a grand house as well as visit the martyr’s remains.
Now, let’s return to Maderno’s Santa Cecilia. We are lucky to have a first-hand account of the excavations led by Cardinal Sfondrato in 1599 that uncovered Saint Cecilia’s remains. Antonio Bosio, author of Roma Sotterranea and known as the “Columbus of the catacombs,” wrote another text called Historia Passionis Beatae Ceciliae Virginis. Here, Bosio describes exactly how the Saint’s body was found:
Iacebat id corpus in dexterum incumbens latus, paululum contractis crucibus, brachiisque ante proiectis, cervice autem valde reflexa, facieque ad humum procumbente dormientis instar, eam ut credi potest formam retinens, in qua post trinam percussionem, cui triduum supervixit, animam Deo reddens conciderat, fueratque pariter in Coemeterio ab Urbano Pontifice collocatum. …Hunc iacentis Corporis statum marmoreo simulachro, de quo infra dicetur, Illustrissimus Cardinalis Sfondratus exprimi curavit.”4
Bosio’s account further attests to the seemingly miraculous preservation of Saint Cecilia’s body – even in death, her body retained the appearance of life. And it was in this vein that Cardinal Sfondrato commissioned the sculpture. In fact, you can see the three strikes in her neck, as well as droplets of blood (see picture above) – further asserting her body’s incorruption. Maderno’s piece is meant to faithfully represent the saint’s actual remains, as though it were merely a cast. Whether Maderno executed the sculpture as Bosio recounts is unclear. However, we now understand just how fitting the intent to preserve its likeness was for Saint Cecilia, who ardently guarded her body against impurity and corruption. The humility that coincides with this rejection of “polluto amore” is abundantly represented with her “facie…ad humum procumbente.” Interestingly, Maderno actually did render her face, as you can see below. However, because of its purposeful placement, no ordinary visitor to Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere will ever see it. Maderno not only preserved Saint Cecilia’s body, but also her powerful humility.
- de Voragine, Jacobus. Legenda Aurea. “Cap. CLXIX: De Sancta Caecilia.” p. 772. The Latin text can be read here. The English translation can be read here. ↩
- de Voragine, Jacobus. Legenda Aurea. “Cap. CLXIX: De Sancta Caecilia.” p. 776. The Latin text can be read here. The English translation can be read here. ↩
- Photo courtesy of: Lo Bianco, Anna. Cecilia: La storia, l’immagine, il mito: La scultura di Stefano Maderno e il suo restauro. Roma: Campisano Editore srl, 2001. p. 41. ↩
- Bosio, Antonio. Historia Passionis Beatae Ceciliae Virginis. p. 157. The Latin text can be read here. The English translation can be read here. ↩
- Photo courtesy of: Lo Bianco, Anna. Cecilia: La storia, l’immagine, il mito: La scultura di Stefano Maderno e il suo restauro. Roma: Campisano Editore srl, 2001. p. 33. ↩