St. Cecilia, also known as Cecily, lived during the Third Century. The exact dates of her birth and death remain unknown, but her story is legendary.
Cecilia was born in Rome when Christianity was illegal. She was raised in a Christian family and was a devout girl. In fact, she wore a hair shirt as an undergarment, fasted several days a week, and intended to consecrate herself totally to God by living as a virgin.
Meanwhile, her father arranged that Cecilia be married to a young pagan nobleman named Valerian. Because the marriage went against her wishes, Cecilia did not join in the singing and dancing at the wedding feast but rather went off by herself to sing to God and pray for help.
Later that night when Valerian and Cecilia were alone, she explained that she had reserved herself to God, that she intended to remain a virgin, that an angel was watching over her, and that if he were to touch her, the angel would become angry and he would suffer. Valerian was so moved by Cecilia’s faith that he decided to respect her wishes. Not only that, Valerian went off, found Pope Urban, and was baptized. Upon his return, Cecilia and Valerian sat side-by-side and an angel appeared and placed a crown of roses and lilies upon each of their heads.
Valerian’s brother Tiburtius, also a pagan, then appeared, and Cecilia shared the story of Jesus with him. He was convinced by her testimony, converted, and was baptized. For a brief time the two brothers cared for the poor and buried martyrs. This became known to government officials and they were arrested and placed on trial before Almachius, the Roman prefect. The brothers refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods and remained steadfast in their new Christian faith. They infuriated the prefect when they mocked the pagan god Jupiter. They were scourged and then condemned to death and beheaded on the outskirts of Rome. Cecilia buried them.
Shortly thereafter, officials went to Cecilia’s home to force her to renounce her Christian faith and to sacrifice to pagan gods. Not only did she refuse, she convinced the officials and a crowd of about four hundred spectators to convert, and Pope Urban came to baptize them. At this Almachius placed Cecilia on trial. Resolute, the prefect condemned her to a gruesome death, to be placed in a bathtub filled with scalding water and then be suffocated, but she survived unharmed. Then she was sentenced to beheading, but the executioner failed to dispatch her immediately with his three blows to her head. Cecilia languished for three days and expired.
The Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome is dedicated to her. She was named the patron saint of sacred music in 1584 at the time when the Accademia della Musica was founded in Rome. She is also the patroness of musicians, composers, poets, singers, choirs, choir directors, pianists, organists, those who play musical instruments and those who make them.
St. Cecilia has a variety of symbols in religious art: a palm branch which represents martyrdom; a crown of roses, the crown of martyrdom; a white flower which represents purity, chastity, or virginity; and a harp, harpsicord, piano, organ, flute, horn, violin, or another musical instrument, all which represent her patronage of musicians.