Santa Cecilia: a jewel in the backstreets of Trastevere

I took advantage of a spot of sunshine in an otherwise very rainy Rome to return to one of my favourite places in the Trastevere district: the Basilica of Saint Cecilia. The patron saint of musicians, Cecilia was a Roman noblewoman who died a Christian martyr around the late second/early third century, according to legends which claim she survived an attempt to suffocate her and even continued living for three days after having her neck slashed three times with a sword. The church, supposedly built on the site of her house, is approached through a beautiful courtyard containing a fountain with a large urn at its centre.

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The bell tower to the right dates back to the twelfth century, while the facade was created in 1725, by architect Ferdinando Fuga, who also designed the facade of Santa Maria Maggiore. Just below the words on the front of Saint Cecilia’s basilica there is a strip of pretty mosaics you can stop to see on the way in.

SAntacecilia 010Inside, you are likely to be drawn towards the Byzantine-style mosaic in the apse- dating to the ninth century. It depicts seven figures: Jesus Christ in the centre, flanked by Pope Paschal I, Saint Agatha and Saint Paul on the left, and Saint Peter, Valerian  (Cecilia’s husband), and Cecilia on the right.

SAntacecilia 016Below the altarpiece is a statue of Saint Cecilia lying in the way she is believed to have died, sculpted by Stefano Maderno in 1599. Her hand gestures send a powerful message. One finger is extended in one hand, three in the other. This is supposed to symbolise one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and was her final way of professing her faith in the Holy Trinity. A similar statue can be seen at the catacombs of San Calisto on the Old Appian Way, where Cecilia was buried. Her body was later moved to the basilica in the ninth century under orders of Pope Paschal I.

SAntacecilia 020One aspect of this church I like a lot are the side aisles, which are decorated with frescoes of angels and stars.

SAntacecilia 025But a visit to Saint Cecilia does not end with the church itself: there are also the remains of old Roman houses and a crypt down below. It is well worth parting with 2.50 euros to see this interesting ancient site. After heading down the stairs you arrive in the Domus, or upper class Roman house, where you can see the remains of ancient columns, inscriptions and other remnants.

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SAntacecilia 038Further in you can see an ancient shrine to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, as well as several decorated sarcophagi.

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SAntacecilia 053At the end of the underground section you come to the more modern crypt of Saint Cecilia, built in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, which is covered in colourful mosaics.

SAntacecilia 062On your way out, you can take another moment to admire the church of Saint Cecilia. If you are lucky like I was once, a nun may be practising the organ, in a nice homage to the patron saint of musicians. And don’t forget to take a peek behind you again as you leave the courtyard.

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