(b. 1483, Urbino, d. 1520, Roma)

St Cecilia

Oil transferred from panel to canvas, 220 x 136 cm
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

Raphael probably accompanied Leo X when he went to Bologna to meet the King of France, Francis I, in 1515. He may have passed through Florence, where Leo was welcomed with great enthusiasm by his fellow citizens. Leonardo da Vinci - who later accepted the French King's invitation to Paris - and Michelangelo - to whom Leo X commissioned the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo - also followed the Pope.

A letter which Raphael sent to the painter, Francesco Francia, provides proof of this journey. According to a legend, Francesco Francia died after seeing the St Cecilia which Raphael painted for the Church of San Giovanni in Monte in Bologna. The story is almost credible, for the Bolognese artistic environment still revolved around the style of Perugino. The painting was commissioned by Elena Duglioli dall'Olio of Bologna. She was famous for having visions and ecstatic fits in which music played a great part, which is probably why she asked for a picture of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Raphael decided on a painting in the style of a Sacra Conversazione, with St Cecilia in the centre surrounded by saints. The altarpiece, which is now in the Museum of Bologna, was placed in San Giovanni in Monte in 1515. It was painted some time before, however.

The glorification of purity is the central idea behind this painting. This is expressed by the figures seen on both sides of the principal figure: St John the Evangelist is the patron saint of the church, and St Paul symbolizes innocence, while St Augustine and St Mary Magdalene stand for purity regained through atonement after sinful aberration. The four saints who surround the protagonist form a niche which is strengthened by the poses and gestures of the figures (the glances of the Evangelist and St Augustine cross, St Paul's is lowered and the Magdalene turns hers toward the spectator). Only St Cecilia raises her face toward the sky, where a chorus of angels appears through a hole in the clouds. The monumentality of the figures, typical of Raphael's activity during this period, dominates the other figurative elements.

In the legend of St Cecilia, too, the painter emphasizes her desire to preserve her purity. As they were escorting Cecilia to the house of her betrothed, to the accompaniment of musical instruments, in her heart she called out only to God, beseeching Him to preserve the chastity of her heart and her body.

So runs the fifth-century legend, and accordingly in this picture Cecilia does not hear the profane music, her eyes raised toward the heavens connects her directly with the choir of angels. This much is in complete agreement with the story of the Roman martyr.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 3 minutes):
Girolamo Frescobaldi: Ricercar No. 8