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The heavenly music in "ecstasy of St Cecilia" by Raphael

  • Introduction

The famous painting by Raphael, and aid, entitled “ecstasy of St Cecilia[1] is an artwork currently housed in the Pinacoteca di Bologna, whose dating varies between 1513 and 1515. The painting was executed for the Church of san Giovanni in Monte, Bologna. The work was commissioned by Elena Dugliol[2]i for the chapel consecrated to Saint Cecilia. The expenses were incurred by Canon Florentine Antonio Pucci, nephew of cardinal Lorenzo Pucci[3].

In a document dated 1515 we talk about this lady Elena, wife of Blessed Daniel, whose spiritual life was inspired by that of Cecilia.

  • Music and Santa Cecilia

The protagonist of the painting, Santa Cecilia and around her four saints[4]. The santa turns his gaze to the sky where it appears an angelic choir that sings a divine melody. The singing is not perceptible to the human ear and only the soul can hear the sacred sound. Only to Cecilia is given to understand and hear the harmony because it has become blind to things earthly he eyed for the heavenly [5]“. That’s why glancing at the sky the angelic choir shows it to her. While listening to the heavenly melody, falls from his hands a portable organ, where you are walking two rods. At her feet are a series of old musical instruments or even broken. These tools are a viola da gamba Unstrung, a triangle, two flutes, rattles and two tambourines with skin tears. All these objects have a definite meaning. They refer to the transience of earthly life and are also linked to the symbolism of human passions, because connected with the worship of B[6]acchus than the heavenly musi[7]c. The representation of music is loaded with meanings that echo the themes of divine love and contempt for material goods.

Surely all this “symbolizes the choice of a music close to God, to be heading directly a gift, where the tools, however, remain a human creation[8].
However the tool without strings may also indicate that there’s no need for any rope ring, in order to perceive the unearthly music, because it is inherent in the soul and goes far beyond our imagination. It is something that cannot be told in words. This go over to human nature could be well explained by the word “transumanare”, coined by Dante in Canto of paradise of the Divine Comedy, just to make the idea of that overcome the limitations of human nature, as one approaches to the divine one because “transumanar significar for verba/not poria; though the example suffice/that Serb “grace experience[9].

  • Iconography and sources

Move the focus to the four saints around Cecilia. To the left is St. Paul, with a meditative attitude seems to give his back to the Viewer, his hands holding a scroll in his left hand holds a sword, symbol of his martyrdom; in the background we find St. John that is recognizable from the Eagle with the book lying at his feet; St. Augustine is located on the opposite side of St John and Mary Magdalene finally recognizable because holding a phial containing ointments and his eye is turned towards the Viewer, as if she were the only point of contact between us and Cecilia. The choice of the four Saints is not accidental but is linked to the theme of celestial ascent and ecstasy, just because both John that Magdalene ascended to heaven, while the figures of Paul and Augustine are linked to visions of God.

In the background can be seen a landscape where you can see the outline of a church on the horizon. This image may be the sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte in Bologna[10].Raphael

Back on the detail. From a technical point of view is a truly spectacular and Vasari, in his famous wrote The lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects, says that Raphael had done to John organ that holds the Holy one who contrafé so much from life, which seems still, et all musical instruments that are at the feet of the Holy one and, what it imported far more, made his painting so similar to that of Raphael, that seems the same[11]. Claims that the lump was designed by Giovanni da Udine although the presence of the latter, in the workshop of master, dating back to 1515. This is a painting away from “mass at Bolsena“, the “Madonna of Foligno” and “Sistine Madonna“. Here we have “a different propensity to optical performance of surfaces, strong line design emphasises the pictorial richness that serpentine” and there is a figure changed to sign, the brushwork became more composed and sharp. “[12]

It is not easy to understand when the concept of “music” was associated with the figure of Saint Cecilia. Both the Passio that in other historical sources there is no trace that Cecilia playing instruments or singing. In the middle ages, her figure was always accompanied by the symbols of martyrdom as the Palm or the Crown.  Ran with a musical instrument from the 15th century, perhaps due to an incorrect interpretation of the song of Passion [13]in which, when he described his marriage argued that “While the instruments sounded (cantaribus organis) Cecilia in his heart was addressing his singing to the Lord.[14]” This is why the Virgin martyr is depicted with a portative organ in her hand and feet scattered “for land instruments musicians, that are not painted, but alive and real you know[15]” and Vasari continuing wrote “shakes the meat, we see the spirit, knock the senses at its figures and liveliness you can be se[…]en alive; were made in his honor in many ways and Latins and vulgari, of whom will get just to keep more extensive history of what I have done.

Pignant sola alii, referantque coloribus now:

Ceciliae os Raphael atque animum explicuit.[16]

We must, however, emphasize that the oldest codes they would report these words “Candentibus organis, Cecilia v[…]i[17]rgo” then “organs, would not be musical instruments, but the instruments of torture, and the hint you describe Cecilia that” between the torture instruments glowing, sang to God in his heart. ” The hint does not relate to the wedding feast, but to the moment of martyrdom. [18]

To really understand the relationship between music and the figure of the Holy one must analyze the cultural life of the time. The world, according to the men of the Renaissance “was created and relied on musical relationships through which God had created order out of chaos. This idea will form the basis of culture from Pythagoras to the scientific revolution of the [19]600. ” We think of the musical nature of Boethius Music Institution in tripartite and described De which are respectively: instrumental music, human and heavenly music music. But also to other texts such as the Theologia platonica De Agostino and the Music of Marsilio Ficino. Analyzing this path will come to realize that “the silence of Cecilia affects only a sensitive, not absolute silence: the Saint did not” hear “the music that resounds in the tools but human and heavenly music that puts her in touch with God, through an ecstatic. The tools are just one of the steps to reach the true essence of the divine perfection while the second portrait in the painting silence, not to the ears but for mental ones of Cecilia, is transformed into magnificent Symphony that has as its Chief God [20]

  • Exhibitions

On March 15, 2015 a Conference was held at San Colombano – collected Tagliavini, entitled “musical instruments in the ecstasy of St Cecilia by Raphael“. On this occasion was played the organ master Liuwe Tamminga, curator of the collection T, built in Holland, on the model of the instrument depicted in the famous painting by Raphael of 1514.

Currently the painting is visible at the exhibition “From Cimabue to Morandi. Felsina pittrice “at Palazzo Fava. Museums Palace. From the 14th February until August 30, 2015.


Monday from 12:00 to 19:00

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[1] The painting is an oil on Panel carried on canvas.

[2] A noblewoman from Bologna (Bologna 1427 – Bologna 23 September 1520) declared blessed by Pope Leo XII in 1828.

[3] Santi Quattro Coronati holder since 1513. Titular Church.

[4] This composition is defined as “sacred allegory“.

[5] MARISA DALAI, the compositional structure and space: a proposal of reading, in The Ecstasy of St Cecilia by Raphael from Urbino in the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Bologna 1983, pp. 105-117; HUBERT DAMISCH, the origin of the perspective, Guido Editore, Napoli 1992, p. 44.

[6] JAMES HALL, dictionary of subjects and symbols in art, Milan, Longanesi, 2002 (1974), p. 96 ad vocem Cecilia.

[7]PIERLUIGI DE VECCHI, Raphael, Rizzoli editore, Milano 1975, p. 110-111; MARIANO ARMELLINI, the diary of Leo X of Paris Grassi, master of Pontifical ceremonies from manuscript volumes of the Vatican archives of the Holy see with notes by m. Armellini, Roma, Tipografia della Pace, 1884, p. 7 and 104 footnote 18.

[8] The harmony of “ecstasy of St Cecilia by Raphael can be contacted at the following link and consulted on May 15, 2015.

[9] “You couldn’t explain in words the meaning of transcending the human condition; so the example I did Serbs in those whom the divine work will allow the experience of this condition “taken from DANTE ALIGHIERI, the Divine Comedy, Paradiso, canto I, verses 70 – 73.

[10] TOM HENRY; PAUL JOANNIDES, Raphaël. Les dernières années, Musée du Louvre (11.10.2012-14.01.2013), Paris, Hazan, 2012, p. 109.

[11] GIORGIO VASARI, lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects, (1550) introduction by Roddy MacLeod, Ed. Newton, Rome 2003, p. 1104.

[12] HIPPOLYTA DI MAJO, Raphael and his school, the great masters of art curated by Marco Campigli, Hippolyta di Majo, Aldo Galli and Giovanni Uzzani,, Firenze 2007, p. 202.

[13] The Passio on the Santa story was published by the milanese humanist Bonino Mombritius in the 15th century and the archaeologist Antonio Bosio, printed in 1600, la Historia Passionis Sanctae Virginis Ceciliae, Valeriani, Tiburtii et Maximi martyrium nec non Urbanii et Lucii pontificum et martyrum vitae, printed at the printing house of Stephen Padin and consisted of three parts: the first (published for the second time after Bosio) with the Passio di Santa Cecilia; the Litterae Paschalis first papae, which speaks of the first discovery of the body of cecilia, and made a report of the events that took place in 1599 in the basilica in Trastevere.

[14] Description taken from the site of the conservatorio di santa cecilia and viewable at the following link

[15] GIORGIO VASARI, Le vite, cited above, p. 630.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Saint Cecilia Virgin and martyr article available at the following link and consulted on May 15, 2015.

[18] Ibid.

[19] MICHELE, the silence of St Cecilia, article can be contacted at the following link

[20] Ibid.

About Mariangela Bognolo

Artistic director Retetop95, curator, historian and art critic.

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