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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome

What is Santa Cecilia in Trastevere?

The Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is a 9th-century church in Rome that’s devoted to Saint Cecilia, a noblewoman who converted to Christianity and was martyred by the Romans in the 3rd century AD.

Santa Cecilia in Trastevere History

An oasis of peace and quiet in a noisy neighbourhood, Santa Cecilia was built to honour Saint Cecilia. An important early Christian saint, she was martyred by the Romans in the early 3rd century AD. It is said that the noble Cecilia converted her husband to Christianity and the two then lived together platonically. In the spectacular crypt beneath the main altar of the church, which is decorated in Byzantine style with inlaid geometric stonework, lie the sarcophagi of Cecilia and her husband.

Some say that Cecilia, the patron saint of music, invented the organ. Another story goes that, during the botched first attempt of the Roman authorities to murder her by confining her to the caldarium, or hot room, of her own baths, she sang hymns for three days. Emerging unscathed, she was then beheaded by an experienced executioner. However, he failed miserably in his task, unable to kill her with the three blows permitted by law. Amazingly, Cecilia, with her head half severed, lived on for a further three days.

Pope Paschal I, who moved Cecilia’s body here after seeing the location of her grave in a vision, built the first basilica on this site in the 9th century. Today’s church is an attractive mix of styles and colours. Ferdinando Fuga’s monumental doorway, which opens onto a garden with a fountain, dates from the early 18th century, as does the façade. The bell tower, however, and the portico, with its lovely mosaic decoration, dates from the 12th century.

Inside, the church has a rather bland, 18th-century look, probably because of the decision to encase the Roman columns in concrete pilasters. But there are some marvellous remnants of the more distant past. The luminous 9th-century mosaic in the apse depicts Jesus flanked by Saint Peter, Saint Valerian, and Saint Agatha on the right side and by Saint Paul and Saint Cecilia on the left. The figure farthest to the left, holding a model of the church, is Paschal, who cleverly had himself placed on equal footing with the saints. The Pope, with a square halo around his head that indicates he was still alive at the time the mosaic was made, is being introduced to Christ by an affectionate Cecilia.

The beautiful Gothic altar canopy by Arnolfo di Cambio dates from the late 13th century and is considered his masterpiece. Below is the heart-wrenching statue of Cecilia sculpted by Stefano Maderno in Parian marble, who viewed the supposedly intact body when the tomb was temporarily opened in 1599.

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