In Raphael’s famous painting “St. Cecilia,” one of the highlights of a special exhibition in Paris, the early Christian martyr holds an organ and gazes toward heaven, where a choir of sketchily brushed angels serenades her with ethereal polyphony read from part-books. As the organ slips from her hands and its pipes start to fall, our eyes are drawn to the ground, where a realistically painted viol, triangle and tambourine lie scattered and broken. St. Cecilia’s lips are parted as if she has been singing. The biographer Giorgio Vasari noted in 1568 that “in her countenance is seen that abstraction which is found in the faces of those who are in ecstasy.” 

Musical scene

Raphael's Saint Cecilia
Raphael’s “St. Cecilia” painting, circa 1515-1516. Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale

The St. Cecilia altarpiece is a landmark in the history of the Catholic faith as well as in art. Before this altarpiece was placed in the church of San Giovanni in Monte in Bologna, Italy, in 1517, St. Cecilia was not honored as the patron saint of music. During the 1400s, artists began to depict her holding a portable organ, because of a phrase in the Golden Legend, the popular collection of saints’ lives. But the organ was just an “attribute,” an object that helped to pick her out from other virgin martyrs. 

Indeed, in another Bolognese church, in 1504-1506, prominent local artists had frescoed the life of St. Cecilia, and not one of the scenes depicts music. 

A secret Christian in a pagan noble family, Cecilia had vowed to God to remain a virgin. On the day of her betrothal to a young man named Valerian, “she was clad in royal clothes of gold, but under these she wore the hair,” reports the Golden Legend. “Hearing the organs making melody, she sang in her heart, only to God,” praying that her virginity be preserved. She persuaded her husband to convert to the Christian faith, and both died as martyrs in the second century. 

Raphael’s picture turned this narrative into a kind of icon, setting the model for countless future images of Cecilia as a musician, as well as poems and musical compositions dedicated to her on St. Cecilia’s feast day, Nov. 22. He precisely depicted the details of her “vestments woven in silk and gold, and below these, a marvelous hair-shirt” as Vasari puts it, barely visible at her wrist and above her ankle. 

Ultimate Catholic painter

Days after the deadly earthquake in Bologna, Italy, in May, Bolognese fine arts authorities loaned the masterpiece to a special exhibit of “Late Raphael,” which first went to the Prado Museum in Madrid and is in Paris through Jan. 14. The exhibit gathers many of the moveable works from the last seven years of the artist’s life, from 1513 to 1520, at the peak of the High Renaissance. 

Even more than Michelangelo, Raphael is the ultimate Catholic painter. He shaped the canonic images of the Eucharist and the Transfiguration. His Madonna pictures showed artists for the next 500 years how to balance the Virgin’s purity with her humanity. 

Yet his last seven years have been neglected, partly because 19th century critics preferred the early Renaissance and partly because so many of Raphael’s last works were collaborative, presenting scholars with the puzzle of identifying “hands” that still challenges, even with new analytical tools like infrared reflectography. 

Raphael’s final works on display in the “Late Raphael” exhibit unveil a world of artistic expression that would only be fully explored a century later by artists of the Catholic Reform such as Caravaggio and Poussin.  

United by music

Raphael was working in Rome when Elena Dall’Olio (1472-1520), a later-beatified visionary who persuaded her husband not to consummate their marriage and was revered as “another Cecilia,” ordered the altarpiece for her funerary chapel in San Giovanni in Monte. The chapel remains, and the original frame designed in Raphael’s studio holds a copy, while the painting has been moved to the National Gallery of Bologna.  

Who Was Raphael?
Raphael (1483-1520) was born in Urbino to a court painter. In 1508, he entered into the service of Pope Julius II in Rome, where he lived until his death. He erected a series of panels in the Sistine Chapel, with themes from the Acts of the Apostles, the Sistine Madonna, among other works. He was appointed chief architect of St. Peter’s in 1514. 

The exhibition catalog of “Late Raphael” observes that the St. Cecilia painting joins the five portrayed saints in a spiritual experience that is “purely auditory.” It takes off from the familiar “Sacred Conversation” tradition, in which the enthroned Virgin and Child appeared surrounded in a heavenly dialogue with saints of many different eras. Here, though, God is only present in the thoughts of the figures. 

Four saints, each with a special link to spiritual love, surround Cecilia. St. Paul leans on a sword at left, clad in a massive red cloak. He looks down at the broken instruments, clasping a letter inscribed “COR,” perhaps a reference to the “noisy gong” of speech without love (1 Cor 13), or an allusion to his ecstatic vision of heaven (2 Cor 12). Next to him is St. John the Beloved, who (in the words of the poet Shelley) “with a tender yet impassioned gesture, bends his countenance towards her, languid with the depth of emotion.” St. John was the patron saint of virginity; St. Paul praised celibacy in 1 Corinthians. 

On the right, St. Mary Magdalene looks directly out, holding the ointment jar she carried to the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning. She stands next to St. Augustine, whose glance engages St. John. Augustine was not only the patron of the religious order of the church of San Giovanni in Monte, but he had praised music as a path to God, and dealt with the heavenly Jerusalem in “The City of God.” 

Churchlike setting

The Prado and Louvre museums installed “St. Cecilia” and other late Raphael altarpieces in a setting evoking the Greek-cross shape of many churches of the Renaissance, allowing visitors to imagine the sacred space for which these pictures (now all in museums) were intended and to imagine their function in worship. The setting also focuses us on the innovations of Raphael’s last years. The “St. Cecilia” is his first major work to show a dark blue sky, slightly lit at the horizon to create a sense of deep space. 

The “St. Cecilia” is one of the few of Raphael’s late altarpieces entirely from his own hand. At age 35, he was juggling many duties, including designing of the tapestries of the Acts of the Apostles for the Sistine Chapel; serving as architect for St. Peter’s basilica; overseeing archeological digs in Rome; supervising more than 50 Bible stories frescoed in the papal loggia of the Vatican; and producing important portraits and religious works. 

He led a workshop of more than 50 artists who were able to carry out his ideas with astonishing fidelity. Meanwhile, he broke new artistic ground, enriching his palette with the jewellike colors visible in the “St. Cecilia,” introducing greater shadows and probing the emotional reactions of his figures to the sacred stories. 

As an “active and believing Christian,” Prado Deputy Director Gabriele Finaldi said, Raphael “felt he was playing an important part in making these stories up to date and approachable.” 

While Raphael’s own life was cut short at the age of only 37, his late works uniquely laid the basis for the fervent religious art of centuries to come. 

Nora Hamerman writes from Virginia.