Prior to 1500, paintings of Saint Cecilia show no signs of any association with music. Although anticipated by a slightly earlier altarpiece in Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Cologne, it was Raphael’s painting of her in religious ecstasy which appears to have led to her adoption as the patron saint of music and musicians. By 1600, almost every painting of Saint Cecilia showed her with musical attributes.
Domenichino’s painting from 1617-18 shows Saint Cecilia Playing the Viol, still ecstatically looking up to heavens as she bows its strings.
Just a year or so later, it was Artemisia Gentileschi’s turn, in her Saint Cecilia, where she is playing another keyboard instrument as she looks the viewer straight in the eye.
Nicolas Poussin’s St Cecilia from 1627-28 deploys sheet music as did Michiel Coxie, with the saint playing a smaller portable version of a harpschord.
It was Guercino who, in 1649, took his Saint Cecilia back to the pipe organ.
Giambattista Tiepolo provides the highlight of a rather duller batch of paintings of the saint during the eighteenth century, in his portrait of Saint Cecilia from 1750-60. Still sat at a keyboard, she turns to look up and over her right shoulder as her left hand grasps her music. The artist changed his mind on her choker of pearls, the original version of which can be seen crossing lower down on her throat.
Paintings of Saint Cecilia continued to flourish again during the nineteenth century.
The Childhood of Saint Cecily (1883) was one of the last paintings composed by the Pre-Raphaelite Marie Spartali Stillman before she left Florence, which is reflected in its idealised Tuscan background. The saint is shown playing a harp-like psaltery, while an angel adjusts the garland on her head. How ironic that one of the last members of a movement which intended to return to art prior to Raphael, should paint a work based on Raphael’s visual innovation.
Gustave Moreau painted at least two late works showing the saint. Saint Cecilia from 1890–95 (above) shows her playing an ornate lyre, while Saint Cecilia: Angels Announcing Her Impending Martyrdom from 1897 (below) is an ornate and bejewelled nocturne showing the saint sitting in religious ecstasy again. Here it isn’t the saint who holds a musical instrument but the angels.
My last two paintings, from just before the start of the twentieth century and a quarter of the way through it, return to styles preceding Raphael’s but don’t try to wind the clock back with respect to their motif.
Edward Reginald Frampton’s Saint Cecilia from 1898 shows the saint sat playing a pipe organ and singing, as another figure (Valerian perhaps) levitates behind her back. This may refer to Cecilia’s wedding night and the angel she invoked to preserve her virginity.
Paul Sérusier’s Music, or Saint Cecilia on the Harpsichord is one of his last works, and shows her playing another harpsichord.
As it turns out, Raphael’s original composition from 1513-14 has had decisive influence over every subsequent painting of the saint. That’s what makes it great.