Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Stational Church: Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

Saint Cecilia was a noble Roman maiden who, together with St. Urban the Bishop, converted her patrician husband, St. Valerian, and his brother, St. Tiburtius, to Christianity. They suffered martyrdom around the year 230 and were buried together in the catacomb of Callistus on the Appian Way. Saint Cecilia did not surrender easily. The first attempt at suffocation in the baths of her own house failed. In fact, she sang hymns in the midst of her torments, earning her the title of patroness of music. Next, she was struck in the neck with an axe three times; but even this failed to dispatch her quickly. She lived for three days, preaching to the pious crowds which came to see the wonder.

A sanctuary was built on the house of her husband, Valerianus. This became the ancient titulus Caeciliae, one of the original twenty-five parishes of Rome. Paschal I (817-824) restored the old church and decorated it with mosaics, having transferred from the catacombs to this church the bodies of Cecilia and her companions, Valerian, Tiburtius, and Maximus, as well as the bodies of two popes, Saints Lucius I and Urban I, in 821. Paschal’s mosaic is noteworthy because it represents the pilgrim church below and the triumphant church above. The Redeemer, between the Princes of the Apostles, is holding court among the protecting martyrs of the Church. Pope Paschal, offering the temple rebuilt to him, enters into the syndicate of the saints, guided by the patroness Cecilia, who introduces him to the presence of Our Savior. On the opposite side we also see Saint Agatha who, together with Saint Cecilia, protects the virgins of the adjoining school who sing the divine praises night and day.

The cloistered Benedictine nuns of this monastery (since 1530) have the privilege of weaving the wool of the lambs which are blessed on January 21 in the suburban Basilica of Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura into the sacred pallia of the newly appointed metropolitan archbishops. After the pallia are woven, they are placed in the silver coffer beneath the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica until the installation of new archbishops. A monastery has existed on this site since the ninth century.

The scavi was begun in 1902, when the crypt was opened under the main altar, richly adorned with fine marbles and modern mosaics. Of special interest is the famous statue of St. Cecilia by Stefano Maderno, displayed in front of the main altar. When Cardinal Sfondrati, titular of the church (and buried here), opened her tomb in 1599, the artist made a drawing of her intact and incorrupt body. The sculptor’s inscription can still be seen on the floor, testifying she is depicted just as he saw her. Also note the calidarium of the ancient house in the first chapel on the right. Of historical note, Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII, was titular of this church earlier in the sixteenth century. Also of historical note, the only surviving painting by Cavallini is located in the upper gallery, a fresco called The Last Judgment painted around 1293. It is considered a turning point in the history of art because it was one of the main inspirations for Renaissance art and thus marks the end of the Byzantine style. Unfortunately the gallery is closed most of the time to the public, but there is time after Sunday Mass (around 11 am) and usually late mornings on Tuesday and Thursday.

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