Reputedly, Cecilia (or Cecily) was a member of a noble Roman family who—having been forced into marriage—persuaded her new husband, Valerian, to respect her holy vow of virginity. Legends say he was himself converted to Christianity by a vision of his wife’s guardian angel. Cecilia is regarded as the patroness of music and musicians, and is represented as such in many paintings, including one by Raphael (1843–1520). The designation came about because, it was said, while organs played at her wedding, “she sang in her heart” to Christ (Coulson 1958, 107, 114). She is commonly depicted playing a flute, harp, or other instrument, especially an organ (see accompanying picture postcard, ca. 1915, author’s collection).
Subsequently, when Valerian and his brother refused Christian persecutors’ demand to renounce their faith, they were beheaded, and Cecilia was ordered to suffer the same fate for the “crime” of burying their bodies. However, when the executioner failed to decapitate her with the three legally permitted strikes, he fled, leaving her to linger for three days. She was found dead with three fingers extended on her right hand and one on the other—symbolizing the Holy Trinity (Cruz 1977, 43).
As it happens, the pious tale of Cecilia, according to Delany’s Dictionary of Saints (1980, 140), “has been constructed from legends, many of which are untrustworthy.” Coulson’s The Saints (1958, 107) is more explicit, saying it is “a fabrication devoid of historical truth”; he adds that “the story of her virginal marriage has been plagiarized. . . .” Her death may have been much later than alleged, because her persona was apparently based on an heiress of the Cecelia family (hence the similarity of name).
When Cecilia lived is unknown, although some say she died about 177 C.E. Many centuries later, in 822 Pope Pascal I wished to have her remains interred in a church dedicated to her but did not know her grave’s location. Miraculously, we are told, she appeared to him in a vision and identified the site. Again miraculously, supposedly—almost another eight centuries later, in 1599—her body was exhumed and discovered to be remarkably preserved. In Catholicism such “incorruptibility” is believed a sign of holiness (just as in certain Slavik countries it has sometimes been interpreted as proof of vampirism! [Nickell 2013, 171]).
In any event, this body was the first saint’s corpse reported to have been “incorruptible” (Cruz 1977, 43–46). A study the phenomenon reveals that many such bodies were actually embalmed, while others had been preserved naturally due to favorable conditions such as burial in sandy soil or a dry tomb. In some instances, the opposite conditions—constant wetness—may have transformed the outer layer of fat into a soaplike substance (known as adipocere or “grave wax”), the body eventually progressing to mummification. Some “Incorruptible” corpses are nothing of the sort, like that of St. Clare (founder of the Poor Clares order), whose “body” was discovered to have been a mannequin, inside which were “the saint’s bones all tied together with silver wire, cloth, and pitch” (Pringle 2001, 266). (See also Nickell 2013, 170–171; for a lengthier discussion see Nickell 1993, 85–93.)
St. Cecilia’s preservation may have been due to certain effects of her burial. Seeking clues in the old accounts, I found that the body had likely been specially prepared. See had been dressed in finery—in a “gold embroidered dress”—and draped “in a silk veil.” The body of such a wealthy person could be expected to have also been washed and embalmed, and the viscera even removed (a great aid to preservation); indeed, the officials who exhumed her in 1599 only peered through the veil: “due to a ‘holy reverence,’ no further examination was made” (Pastor 1933, 24:521). Highly suggestive is the fact of a “mysterious and delightful flower-like odor which proceeded from the coffin” (Guéranger n.d.). This could indicate the use of burial spices, like myrrh—a fragrant resin used in Jewish burial practice, including the interment of Jesus (John 19:39–40), and in Egyptian mummification. Myrrh and linen wrapping were known to have been used in early Christian burials and aided in mummification (Pringle 2001, 258–259).
The body of “Cecilia” was lodged in a casket of cypress—a wood so durable it was standard for mummy cases (Encyclopedia Britannica 1910, 7: 693–694). In turn, the casket was enclosed (when is uncertain) in a protective marble sarcophagus, and that was reportedly placed in a niche in the wall of the Catacomb of Callistus—although, when rediscovered due to the pope’s vision, it was in the Catacomb of Praetextatus. Some speculate that the sarcophagus may have been relocated for protection due to the “earlier depredations of the Lombards” (according to The Catholic Encyclopedia [“St. Cecilia” 2014]). However, Coulson (1958, 107) is skeptical, asking: “How came it that when the body was concealed, the pope was not informed of the fact and place?” In any case, the remains known today were transferred to Cecilia’s titular church in Trastevere and placed under the high altar.
Such burial vaults beneath churches—carved from cool ground and lined with alkaline stone—fostered preservation of bodies. Remaining cool the year round, “some of the vaults served as superb natural mummifiers, preserving their trove of desiccated flesh for centuries” (Pringle 2001, 264). Reference sources do not update the condition of St. Cecilia’s body, and The Catholic Encyclopedia fails even to mention her alleged incorruptibility. The Catholic Church has now all but abandoned the issue of incorruptibility and no longer accepts it as evidence for canonization (Pringle 2001, 267).
Coulson, John, ed. 1958. The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary. New York: Hawthorn Books.
Cruz, Joan Carroll. 1977. The Incorruptibles. Rockford, IL: Tan Books.
Delaney, John, J. 1980. Dictionary of Saints. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.
Guéranger, Prosper. N.d. Life of Saint Cecilia; cited in Cruz 1977, 45.
Nickell, Joe. 1993. Looking for a Miracle. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2013. The Science of Miracles. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Pringle, Heather. 2001. The Mummy Congress. New York: Theia.
St. Cecilia. 2014. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Online at https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03471b.htm; accessed April 18, 2014.
von Pastor, Ludwig. 1933. The History of the Popes; cited in Cruz 1977, 45.