Friday, 6 May 2016

The Holy Busker

Mr Walker and I often joke that if you legitimately want to show boobs in a painting, you can always call it 'Andromeda'.  By hanging a classical or biblical label on a pretty girl you can lift its purpose (and possibly its price), turning a painting of a lovely popsy into something the mayor can hang in his dining room.  So too, it seems, with the subject of today’s piece of nonsense - Beforehand she might have been Saucy Sal, willing for a shilling and not averse to showing you her thrups for half a pound of plums, but shove a musical instrument in her hands et voila! She’s St. Cecilia!

St Cecilia Edward Burne-Jones

As saints go, Cecilia is quite an easy one to spot in paintings due to her instrumental accessories and indeed, she is the patron saint of musicians.  I like that her attributes are violins or various keyboards, rather than the thing that killed her (a big old sword) as I think it’s a bit rude to make poor St Catherine potter about with a wheel for ever more. Anyway, St Cecilia is rather a big deal as saints go, being one of the eight women mentioned in the Canon of the Mass, and although the more flowery bits of her story are all legends that have grown up around her, it is believed that she actually existed and was martyred in the second or third century AD.

The Childhood of Saint Cecilia (or Cecily) (1883) Marie Spartali Stillman
Cecilia was from a well-off family of Rome and as was usually the case, she was married off to a chap from presumably another well-off family. Marie Stillman chose to show Cecilia as a child with her harp and a garland of roses (one of her non-musical attributes).  Interestingly, while it is traditional to show Cecilia strumming away on an instrument, she actually didn’t play, or if she did, that isn’t the point of her attribution.  It was during her wedding feast, when Cecilia sat apart and miserable from the guests, Cecilia sang to God in her heart.  I think there are numerous occasions when my daughter would prefer it if I sang in my heart and not loudly in the car, next to her.

Saint Cecilia (1885) Henry Ryland
Looking at the range of St Cecilia’s that are on offer, I do like the ones who have the portable organs with them for impromptu holy recitals.  Henry Ryland’s russet saint manages to combine a pipe organ, a headdress of roses and a halo for full effect.  I am also interested in her necklace, but I’ll come to that in a bit…

Saint Cecilia Emma Florence Harrison
Anyway, Cecilia was determined to remain a virgin, as she believed God wanted, and so when it came to her wedding night she told her new husband that angels were watching them and would punish him if he tried anything.  When he asked to see the angels, Cecilia told him he had to go to the third milestone on the Appian Way and be baptised by Pope Urbanus. So off he went.  I’m sure there are people who have had stranger wedding nights…

Saint Cecilia (c.1903) Frederick Appleyard
When he returned, he could see the angels around his wife, crowning her with roses. I’m sure Cecilia was far too classy to say ‘I told you so’…

Saint Cecilia (1895) John William Waterhouse
Well, that’s the nice bit of the story, now the not so nice bit.  Cecilia, her husband, brother and a Roman soldier were all martyred by prefect Turcius Almachius, who did a rather bad job of it.  Cecilia was struck three times on the neck with a sword but didn’t die for three days during which time she asked the Pope to convert her house into a church.  She was buried at the catacombs of St Callistus then transferred to the Church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere, the alleged site of her home.  Three hundred years after her death her body was found to be perfectly preserved and uncorrupted, apparently looking as if she had just fallen asleep.  This probably accounts for the numerous images of her slumbering at her organ or as she listens to angels play.

Saint Cecily (1904) Edward Reginald Frampton
There is something a little ‘Lady of Shalott’ or ‘Avalon’ about many images of Cecilia, possibly because of the link to Tennyson for all of them (see Harrison above and Rossetti below).  Cecilia seems to be isolated on a little blissful island with only her music (rather than a tapestry).  This isn’t the only image that Frampton did, he was also responsible for this lovely piece…

Saint Cecilia Edward Reginald Frampton
Goodness, Frampton’s work is so gorgeous and odd.  Interestingly, I notice some artists put a halo on her and some, like Waterhouse, don’t.  I wonder if that is a daring attempt to show the real woman, rather than the saint, to show that she was a normal woman who embraced God and has become immortal in her beauty.

Saint Cecilia (1857) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
 I wonder if the popularity of St Cecilia in Victorian art has something to do with her chosen path of chastity.  Despite the rather dodgy and bite-y embrace of the angel in Rossetti’s illustration above (to Tennyson's 'The Palace of Art'), the idea of a woman remaining pure and lovely even into marriage must have chimed well with the Victorian ideals of good womanhood.  Rossetti’s Cecilia remains ecstatic in her devotion and virginity while the soldier below her bites the apple (and we all know what that means).  She is literally above such earthly matters and the only embrace she seeks is from the angels.

Saint Cecilia, after the manner of Raphael (1864-5) Julia Margaret Cameron

The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia (1515-16) Raphael
In Julia Margaret Cameron’s reimagining of the altarpiece by Raphael, Saint Cecilia is surrounded by saints renowned for their chastity and virtue.  The figures in the Raphael piece are St Paul, St John and Saint Augustine, with Mary Magdalene on the end.  Cameron cuts off Mary Magdalene and casts Mary Hillier as the saintly Cecilia, holding the pipes.  I like the echo of the dark necklace in the photo to the painting, and I wonder if the use of necklaces in the images alludes to her death by sword to her neck.  What I find interesting is that none of the images seem to consciously reference the renaissance imagery of chastity as a belt, as seen clearly in Raphael’s work. Also Raphael has Cecilia’s feet strewn with broken instruments signifying that she is rising above the earthly pleasure of music to more heavenly concerns.  The Victorians seem quite attached to their earthly, if innocence, pleasure in music.

Saint Cecilia Sidney Harold Meteyard
It could also be that the popularity of Saint Cecilia as a subject reinforced holy music as a suitable pursuit for women.  Whilst Renaissance artists showed Cecilia casting instruments aside to listen to the heavenly choirs, Victorian Cecilias open their music and get down to some playing, with an audience of angels.

Saint Cecilia (1896) John Melhuish Strudwick
It’s easy to see why Saint Cecilia was a popular Victorian saint, and it is no coincidence that an Order of Cecilia was sent up on the Isle of Wight in 1882.  If Victorian women needed a role model, I’m sure it was felt they could do worse than follow in the footsteps of a chaste and beautiful young woman who can accompany you on a piano.

What got me thinking about Saint Cecilia in the first place was seeing this amazing silk screen at St Bartholomew’s church in Haslemere.  Designed around the turn of the twentieth century, it shows a band of beautiful Morris and Co.-style women and their many musical instruments. In many ways, Saint Cecilia is a response to the tension in Victorian culture that women should be never idle but only busy with things that are suitable for women to do.  The screen manages to combine three of these things all at once: needlework, religious matters and music.  In many ways, Cecilia is the perfect Victorian woman: obedient to her parents, virginal despite marriage and religious to the point of uncorruptibility. In a society where women were becoming increasingly militant in order to get the vote, you can see why Cecilia’s passive silence proved so alluring…

Saint Cecilia or Evensong (1897) John Melhuish Strudwick
I wonder if she takes requests?


  1. An interesting post. The popularity of icons like St. Cecilia in Victorian art/society ties in beautifully with your observation in your last point that women were becoming vocal in clamouring for equal rights and makes total sense.

  2. Dear Kirsty
    You hum it, she'll play it! It was lovely to see all the gorgeous Cecilias together.
    Altogether now, 'My old man said follow the van...' No? OK then.
    Best wishes

  3. I wonder why she is so often depicted near the sea - I know that Rome is a little way inland from the coast, but many of the paintings have her depicted somewhere on a hill overlooking the sea, with ships present. Is this something of Christian iconography, a specific symbolism?

  4. Sorry to be so late with this. But now I know about St Cecilia. I was just really interested because I fell in love with Charles Gounod's St Cecilia Mass. For the paintings I like the Frampton best. Thanks. William Rose


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx