Why Saint Cecilia?


We chose the image of Saint Cecilia playing the violin by an anonymous late 17th-century Italian painter who worked in the style of Bolognese painter Guido Reni for a variety of reasons.

First, Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians. A Roman Christian martyr of the late 2nd and early 3rd century, she probably became the patroness of music sometime in the late Middle Ages, though nobody exactly knows why. It may be that she became assimilated with music, singing, and musical instruments because of a misinterpretation of the meaning of the antiphon text to the introit of the second vespers for her feast day (22 November). The text is Cantantibus organis, Cecilia virgo in corde suo soli Domino decantabat dicens: fiat Domine cor meum et corpus meum inmaculatum ut non confundar. One of the problems was the erroneous translation of “organis” (instruments) as “organ.” Indeed, starting in the late 14th century, she began to appear in iconography carrying a small portative organ, though later she was also represented playing the viola da gamba (Domenichino), the theorbo (Saraceni), or the violin, as in the present painting. She is often depicted with one or more angels who sing or play an instrument.

A second reason for choosing this particular painting is that it was painted in the late 17th century, which is the period in which composer Giovanni Bononcini composed his oratorio Maddalena a i piedi di Cristo (1690), and in the same area where Bononcini was active. Many composers have celebrated Saint Cecilia in their compositions, particularly in masses and oratorios by Purcell, Scarlatti, Handel, Haydn, and later also Gounod, Britten, and many others.

Finally, the painting belongs to the Neville Collection in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the University of Oregon campus: using it in this context perfectly encapsulates the broad meaning of musicking as it applies to the conference.

 Marc Vanscheeuwijck

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