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Saint Cecilia in Trastevere is a ninth-century monastic church and minor basilica located at Piazza di Santa Cecilia 22. It is dedicated to a third-century Roman martyr, a noble woman, who is the patron saint of musicians. According to legend, she had taken a vow of chastity before marrying a pagan named Valerian, whom she persuaded to become baptized and to accept her vow. He was later martyred along with his brother, and even a soldier involved in their execution. A first attempt to kill Cecilia was made by suffocating her in a bath house, but she survived, reportedly singing through her ordeal. Attempts were then made to behead her, but after the requisite three strokes failed to kill her she lingered for three days before finally dying of her injuries. Her house, the site on which the church now sits, was eventually donated for the purpose.

Other accounts state that her martyrdom occurred under the emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century (303). Pope St. Urban I (222-230) reportedly had her buried in the catacombs of Callistus initially but her remains were translated to the church, in the ninth century. The present church was built by Pope Paschal I in 821. According to further legend, her relics in the catacombs had been forgotten but he had a dream in which he saw her point out the location, and her incorrupt body was then found in a coffin of cypress wood, wrapped in a shroud with gold thread with blood-stained cloth collected at her feet. The pope states that he himself enshrined her relics and the coffin, lined with silk fabric, in a marble sarcophagus under the altar of the new basilica.

Things really get interesting in the sixteenth century: a Holy Year was proclaimed for 1600, and the interior of the church was restored, which focused on the shrine of the saint. The relics were disinterred in 1599 in the presence of several witnesses. The sarcophagus did indeed apparently contain a wooden coffin lined with silk and a body in a gold-embroidered shroud, as described in the Liber Pontificalis. Cardinal Caesar Baronius recorded the events and supervised the exposition of the relics, which took several weeks. Sculptor Stefano Maderno also attended the event, and based this sculpture on what he himself reportedly saw, that is, the incorrupt body of the saint. He left an inscription attesting to the event, but the positioning of the body is curious. Some state that it is doubtful that this is how she was arranged in her coffin, but some versions of the legend state that St. Cecilia was interred in the exact position in which she died, a position apparently preserved down to the opening of the actual coffin in 1599. Other witnesses attest to the incorruptibility of the body. The fascinating account surrounding this church and the sculpture have long fascinated me: Maderno could have chosen to portray St. Cecilia in a variety of ways. This poignant and powerful expression makes a statement; whatever it was he saw clearly made an impression. The remains are still there, along with Valerian, his brother, and Maximus, the soldier who was supposed to preside over their execution, who was eventually martyred along with them. This exquisite sculpture is quite powerful, and the lovely church along with its colorful past is well worth a visit if you're in Rome.

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Additional Photos by Terez Anon (terez93) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 92 W: 78 N: 1196] (2114)
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