Rome: Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

The legend

The Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

This very old church in the Rione of Trastevere is certainly worth a visit. It is dedicated to Saint Cecilia, who is considered a patron saint of music and whose feast day is on 22 November. On that day, musical sessions are held in the church. Little is known about Cecilia with certainty. Her name – which would have been spelled ‘Caecilia’ – suggests she was a member of the old plebeian clan the gens Caecilia. The Caecilii were part of Rome’s plebeian aristocracy and they were known for their social conservatism during the days of the Roman Republic. The Cecilia of the legend was a Christian noblewoman that had taken a vow of virginity, which was protected by an angel. She had asked her husband Valerianus to respect it and had sent him to the catacombs on the Via Appia to meet a bishop called Urbanus who was living there. Valerianus did what was asked of him, met Urbanus and subsequently converted to Christianity. His brother Tiburtius was baptised as well, and later both were martyred together with a soldier named Maximus, whom they had converted after their arrest.

Santa Cecilia.

Since it was strictly prohibited for members of the nobility to convert to Christianity, Cecilia was also arrested and sentenced to death. Her executioners first tried to suffocate her in her own bath house. When that failed, one of them tried to behead her. The axe hit her neck three times and left deep cuts, but failed to sever her head from the neck. Thus, Cecilia bled to death. Before she died, she gave her house to the Church, which turned the home into a place of Christian worship. Bishop Urbanus had her buried in the Catacombs of Saint Callistus.

The evidence

This is how the legend is often told, based on early fifth century sources. But there are many problems with this story. It is often assumed that the Urbanus in the story is pope Urbanus I. Urbanus had succeeded pope Saint Callistus and was Bishop of Rome between 222 and 230. This means Cecilia and her husband were martyred during the reign of Alexander Severus. This does not make sense, because Alexander was known as a tolerant ruler who had no problems with religious diversity in his city and his Empire. If we are to trust the not so reliable Historia Augusta, Alexander kept a statue of Christ in his personal quarters and even had plans to build a temple for this new ‘god’. He was also reportedly fond of the Christian (and Jewish) saying “do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you”, so killing a teenage virgin girl – Cecilia may have been only fifteen years old – was not something we would expect from this emperor. Besides, there does not seem to have been a formal ban on members of the Roman aristocracy converting to Christianity, although such actions may certainly have been frowned upon.

Room below the church. No signs of Christian worship.

We do not know of any persecutions of Christians under Alexander, so if Cecilia can be considered historical, she was probably martyred later, under emperors that did persecute Christians, like Decius (249-251) or Diocletianus (284-305). There is, by the way, a rival tradition that states that Cecilia was killed during Marcus Aurelius’ reign (161-180). Christians were in fact persecuted during his reign, but the most serious anti-Christian riots took place in Gaul in 177, not in Rome. Coincidentally, Marcus Aurelius and Alexander do share names, as the latter was known as Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus. So if a Marcus Aurelius was involved in Cecilia’s death, we still cannot be certain which Marcus Aurelius it was (to add insult to injury: Commodus and the mad emperor Elagabalus were also named Marcus Aurelius…).

Even more problematic is the claim that Cecilia bequeathed her house to the Church, and that it was converted into a house church. Excavations beneath the present church have not led to convincing evidence that there has been a religious building on this spot since the second or third century. It is much more likely that the first church was built in the fifth century. Pope Paschalis I (817-824) rebuilt it in the ninth century and it is his church, though its appearance has been altered dramatically over the centuries, that we can visit today. So let us take a closer look.

Outside

The Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in the evening.

The church can be approached through a lovely courtyard. The visitor will immediately notice a large stone vase on a pedestal, standing in a rectangular pool in the centre of the court. This vase is a cantharus and it is very old. Also of respectable age is the church’s bell tower or campanile, which is a twelfth century addition. Santa Cecilia’s façade, by contrast, is a relatively new part of the church. It was added in the early eighteenth century by Ferdinando Fuga (1699–1782). On the frieze we read the words:

FRANCISCVS * TITV * SANCTAE * CAECILIAE * CAR * DE * AQUAVIVA

The inscription refers to cardinal Francesco Acquaviva (1665-1725), who was titular cardinal of the church from 1709 until his death. Acquaviva commissioned the eighteenth century restoration, which was executed between 1712 and 1728. If we go inside, we can see the most important changes in the church’s nave.

The nave of the Santa Cecilia.

The nave of the Santa Cecilia.

The nave

The nave looks quite modern, and that is because it is quite modern. The church used to have a medieval Cosmatesque floor that was regretfully (and purposefully) destroyed during the ‘renovation’. It was replaced by the present light-and-dark marble floor, which can only be considered a disappointment. The most important addition of the eighteenth century restoration is arguably the insertion of a new ceiling. Unfortunately, the new ceiling turned out to be much too heavy for the ancient columns, so as part of a new round of restorations during the early nineteenth century, these columns were ‘boxed’ into thicker pillars. It is these square pillars that we see today.

Now that the ceiling is secure, we can safely take a look at the fresco at the centre. It was painted in 1727 and depicts the coronation of Saint Cecilia in Heaven. Below Cecilia, the visitor will notice an organ, which refers to Cecilia’s status as a patron saint of music (although the legends are silent about her playing any instruments). The fresco was painted by Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764).

The apse mosaic

Behind the thirteenth century ciborium or baldacchino, attributed to the famous Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio (circa 1240-1300 or 1310), we find what is arguably the most spectacular part of the church: the ninth century apse mosaic. It is good to realise to that it used to be much bigger. Originally it would have covered much of the walls to the left and right of it, where we can now see two busts of popes (Innocentius XII and his successor Clemens XI). Part of the mosaic was destroyed during the eighteenth century ‘restoration’ (the frescoes in the apse were completely removed).

The 9th century apse mosaic.

Fortunately, there is still much to enjoy. In the centre, we see Jesus Christ who is wearing a toga with a broad purple stripe (the toga laticlavia). Above him is the hand of God and he is flanked by the apostles Saint Peter (Petrus; right) and Saint Paul (Paulus; left). Next to Saint Paul is Saint Cecilia herself, wearing a crown on her head. She has her hand on pope Paschalis’ shoulder. Paschalis holds a miniature version of the church. The fact that he was portrayed with a square blue nimbus around his head indicates that he was still alive when the mosaic was made (circa 820). Above his head we can see a phoenix, the bird that arises from its own ashes, symbolising Resurrection. Peter is flanked by Saint Valerianus, Cecilia’s husband, and by Saint Agatha, a Christian martyr from Sicily and the other patroness of the monastery that is attached to the church. Below Christ, we see the Lamb of God, the twelve apostles depicted as lambs and buildings symbolising Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The altar sculpture of Santa Cecilia.

The altar sculpture

Pope Paschalis reportedly found Cecilia’s corpse in the Catacombs of Saint Callistus in 822. The pope wanted to move the remains of as many martyrs as possible from the catacombs to the city, as the countryside surrounding the Via Appia was being overrun by brigands and it was no longer safe for pilgrims to travel there. According to tradition, Cecilia’s body had not been corrupted during the hundreds of years following her death. Pope Paschalis found the body intact and unspoiled. He moved it to his new church – the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere – where it was placed under the altar.

Cecilia’s relics were rediscovered in 1599 and again the body was found to be in perfect condition. The year 1600 was a Holy Year. For this occasion, the famous sculptor Stefano Maderno (1576-1636) was asked to make a sculpture of the body. The artist testified that he sculpted Cecilia just the way he had found her. Although that seems a little hard to believe, the sculpture is a wonderful, though slightly grisly, piece of art. Deep cuts from the botched attempt to decapitate her can be seen in Cecilia’s neck. It is said that the three extended fingers of her right hand refer to the Holy Trinity, and the sole extended finger of her left hand to the one True God. It is of course questionable whether a fifteen-year-old girl from the second or third century would have been familiar with such deep religious symbolism, which further raises doubts about Maderno’s testimony. Cecilia certainly would have objected to the way Maderno sculpted her left foot. Its second and third toe are much longer than the big toe.

The lower levels

Mosaic floor below street level.

Beneath the present church, the remains of a Roman house from the Imperial age (second century) can be found (see the image above). Parts of the lower levels are open to the public. The visitor has to pay a small entrance fee (about € 2,50) to one of the nuns and is then allowed to wander around unattended. Since there are no signs and the archaeological findings do not have any explanatory captions, the visitor can feel quite lost here. This is probably why I myself, when I visited the lower levels in November 2015, completely missed the domestic pagan shrine with a tufa relief of Minerva.

Pagan shrine with Minerva.

Luckily, I did manage to spot it on my second visit in January 2017 (see the image on the right). This shrine is perhaps the strongest evidence that there was no Christian titulus or church at this location prior to the early fifth century. Surely a pagan object like this would have been removed. My travel guide from 2009 still claims that there was a leather tannery down here, but apparently this claim has been abandoned because of a lack of convincing evidence. There may have been some sort of warehouse at this location, and the pits that have been found may have been used for storing grain and other food.

The 19th century crypt.

Wandering through the damp and smelly rooms, I did manage to find a wonderfully decorated mosaic-and-opus sectile floor (see above; regretfully, I am unable to date it), as well as the medieval tomb slab decorated with a cosmatesque Christian cross (see below). There was no one to tell me just exactly how that slab had come down here, but I was pretty sure it had nothing to do with the original Roman house. Finally, I managed to find the crypt. It was locked on my first visit, but could be entered on my second. Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro (1843-1913), the titular cardinal of Santa Cecilia (1887-1913) who was also responsible for the excavations below the church, ordered the construction of the new crypt at the end of the nineteenth century. Construction of this neo-Byzantine style crypt was completed in 1901.

Medieval slab with decorative cross.

I visited the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere on 18 November 2015 and happened to be in the vicinity again on 22 November, which is Cecilia’s feast day. Because of this, it was possible to view the famous Cavallini fresco in the choir during the evening. Usually, this wonderful piece of thirteenth century art by Pietro Cavallini (1259-1330) can only be viewed on weekdays in the morning, but apparently the Benedictine nuns decided to make an exception for the saint’s feast day. After paying € 2,50, the visitor is allowed to take the elevator, which takes him to the choir. Under the watchful eye of one of the nuns, I was able to fully enjoy what is left of Cavallini’s once much larger fresco, Christ at the Last Judgment Attended by the Heavenly Court. It is strictly forbidden to take pictures or to use your camera to make a movie, so I will just refer you to a wonderful YouTube movie by someone who presumably got permission to shoot it.

Sources

  • Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 211;
  • Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 195-196;
  • Santa Cecilia in Trastevere on Churches of Rome Wiki (highly recommended!).

Update 14 January 2017: text and images have been updated.