St. Cecilia, the 3rd century Roman martyr whose name is included in the commemoration of saints at every Mass, is known as the patron saint of musicians. There are no factual data or clear historical records about Cecilia. She was not a well-known person or prominent official but rather one of the numberless devoted Christians who gave up their lives for their faith during the persecutions in the early centuries of the Church.
The legend of Cecilia’s life suggests that she was a young Christian virgin who had vowed to devote her life to God but who had been betrothed by her father to a marry a pagan. On her wedding day, with the music of the celebration still being played, she converted her husband (and his brother) to Christianity. The two brothers were shortly afterward martyred for their new-found faith and, after burying them, Cecilia was also summoned before the prefect and ordered to sacrifice to the god Jupiter. When she refused, she was sentenced to death by suffocation. When this failed to kill her, an executioner was sent to behead her. After three blows with the sword, this method had also failed, and Cecilia was left to die slowly over the next several days, being comforted by the visits and prayers of her Christian friends. She bequeathed her house to them and it was thereafter used as a house church.
Cecilia was buried in the catacomb of Callistus. In the 9th century, her relics were translated to her church and during renovations in 1599, her tomb was opened, revealing her incorrupt body. A sculptor made a life-size marble statue of St. Cecilia in the position of her body in the tomb, and a replica of that statue is in the catacomb today.
St. Cecilia has been depicted in art since early times, churches and convents have been named for her, and poets have honored her (her life is told as the Second Nun’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). Her designation as the patron of musicians began in the 16th century and many musical works have been written in celebration of her feast day, which is November 22.