According to the story, she was the daughter of a patrician in Rome, and was arranged to be married against her will to a non-Christian named Valerian. She convinced him to respect her virginity, converted him to Christianity, and then converted his brother. The two men were caught burying the bodies of martyred Christians, and were arrested and executed. Cecelia buried their bodies, and she was in turn arrested.
Brought to trial before the Prefect, she called him "a fool."
"Have you no respect of my authority?" he demanded.
"Your power is nothing to be afraid of," she said, even though she was on trial for her life. "The power of mortal men is no more than a bladder full of wind. A needle's point can deflate its blown-up pride."
The Prefect pointed out that the law required punishment of all Christians who did not renounce their faith. Cecelia replied that she had no intention of obeying "a crazy law," and continued to deride the Prefect as "a madman" displaying his "stupidity."
She was sentenced to be suffocated in the bath in her home. (The water in the baths in those days was warmed by wood fire.) The first attempt at execution failed, so the Prefect sent a soldier to cut off her head. He bungled the job, and she lay bleeding and dying in the streets for three days, converting people all the while.
All of these details of Saint Cecelia's life, however, are of extremely questionable historical validity. It is not known whether she lived in the second, the third, or the fourth century, or even if the legends (dating back to the fifth century) surrounding her are based on a real person. (Valerian and the other martyrs associated with Cecelia do appear to have a more solid historical foundation.)
Her role as patron saint of music is said to originate with her wedding day, when she sat alone, and sang to God, praying for help.
In honoring Saint Cecelia, people have often honored music itself, and its transformative, uplifting powers. On the occasion of Saint Cecelia's Day--celebrated in London through the 18th century--the poet Alexander Pope evokes the beauty of a symphony:
"In broken air, trembling, the wild music floats;
Till by degrees, remote and small,
The strains decay,
And melt away
In a dying, dying fall."
But Saint Cecelia is about living, not dying. Saint Cecelia represents the truth that has been understood by countless martyrs--of all faiths--that dying is a temporary condition, and that the temporal power of religious persecutors is likewise temporary. Risking one's own life to bury some dead martyrs, and then insulting a judge with the power to impose a death sentence, are both profoundly irrational--unless one knows that there is a spiritual existence of far greater significance than earthly existence. This is the truth affirmed by the veneration of Saint Cecelia; for whether or not the stories about her life are true, they reflect a higher truth. This same truth is affirmed by great music, which is one of the reasons that so many dictatorships have censored even musical performances that do not contain words.
The Jewish musicians who played Klezmer music in the extermination camps, as well as the millions of people who have prayed to Saint Cecelia, draw from a common spiritual fountain which vindicates Alexander Pope's ode for Saint Cecelia, that "song could prevail O'er Death and o'er Hell, A conquest how hard and how glorious!" No matter what the powers of evil, "music and love were victorious."
For more: The St. Cecilia Chorus (a singing group).
Paintings and holy cards of St. Cecelia.
The Life of Saint Cecilia by William Caxton, from The Golden Legende (1483).
More by Kopel on Catholic Saints.
MaryLinks. Organized collection of links regarding the Virgin Mary, plus a daily calendar with links for Marian feasts, history, and essays.