Feast Day: November 22nd | Patronage: Hymns, Musicians, Poets, Organs and Organists| Iconography: Holding Musical Instruments: Flute, Violin, Harp, Harpsichord, Organ, or Musical Notation; With Songbirds; Singing; and as her body was found centuries after its martyrdom.
Who would you say were the two greatest theologians of the Church? Two greatest evangelists? Two saintliest parents? Or consecrated religious? Or martyrs? Of course, the saints themselves are (no longer) asking “who’s the greatest?”, but I think this sort of questioning forces us at the very least to consider which saints we most connect with and how we got to love them.
This week I began investigating the two greatest historians of the Church. Perhaps those who have collected and retold the stories of the past are less famous, renowned, or honored than the apostles and martyrs and mothers and fathers … but they are the ones who pass onto us the stories of the saints, who put us in touch with all these holy men and women who inspire, encourage, befriend, and intercede for us, so praise God for the humble work of historians. And the two greatest historians of the Church are Eusebius of Caesarea and Caesar Baronius (Bede the Venerable would be a runner up here; he’s the one who got the world dating things according to the “year of our Lord”, “A.D.”, and, it should be said, of these three, he’s the only one who is canonized.)
Now Eusebius was born just a few decades after St. Cecilia had received the crown of martyrdom, but by mainly living and writing in Caesarea, far from the turmoil still engulfing Rome, he was blessed to not himself faced martyrdom there. He was the first to attempt a comprehensive Church History (handily, that is the title that he gave his magnum opus), and while many can critique the biases or limitations of his work, it is a phenomenal glimpse back into the early centuries of the Christian faith. To our tremendous benefit, he tells us of saints and martyrs and popes and characters from the first three centuries of our Church. Now, he sadly doesn’t include St. Cecilia’s story himself (which had just happened, and would not actually set down for 250 more years or so). But, Eusebius was the first to take the honor and love that the Church always had for her saints, which had previously been mainly expressed in hymns, prayers, narrations, and sermons, and wrote down for us these epic accounts of God’s grace in human lives. His work was the concretization of the Church’s faith that the saints live forever, and that you and I can befriend Christians like Aquinas, Joseph, Maximilian, and Cecilia.
Fast-forwarding 1200 years, Caesar Baronius did live amidst the hubbub of the Eternal City. He, a friend of St. Philip Neri and Cardinal of Pope Clement VIII, found that persecution in Rome of the 1500s was no longer from pagan but Christian emperors, who were constantly vying to control the Church and accrue power throughout Europe. Baronius, a great student first of law, then theology, and then Church History would not have been surprised by all of it, but certainly those squabbles purified his heart for the Lord. It seems likely that his vocation as an ordained member of Neri’s Oratorians, as well as a Church Historian, may have been inspired when, as a boy, he would have watched wide-eyed as the pylons and walls of the “new” St. Peters rose from the Vatican Hill to look out over Rome. The great colonnade, obelisk, and fountains in front of the Basilica would not be finished until several years after Baronius passed from this life, yet he was still involved in that, and other such, projects of his day. For instance, Pope Clement also worked to move the bodies of the saints into the Eternal City. Thus, on one day in 1599, Baronius, the greatest historian of the Church, stood next to one of the greatest sculptors of that age, Stefano Maderno (not to be confused with Carlo Maderno, possibly his brother, who would craft that first fountain in front of St. Peter’s). They were in Trastevere, the old Jewish Ghetto where St. Peter probably first lived when he got to Rome, and they were opening the tomb of the much beloved ancient martyr, Cecilia.
The Acts of her martyrdom were legendary: her virginity promised to Christ, her husband converted by her ardent love for the Lord, her boldness before the Roman judge, and the distress of her executioner. Legends said her body was still incorrupt. The group reverently approached her place of rest, discovering the bodies of her husband and her fellow martyred converts nearby. Then, opening her tomb, before their eyes lay the beautifully, beatifically, preserved body of the youthful martyr. Lovingly attired, but with her wounds also visible, the historian found history proven true and the sculptor found a sublime image of the beauty of Christian fidelity. And we find a saintly friend.
– Fr. Dominic went far down the rabbit hole trying to translate Baronius’ magnificent Annales Ecclesiastici. His vivid account from the tomb of St. Cecilia can be found in the 9th Tome/Volume if that immense work, in the section indicated by “Christus 821”. But, an even more vivid glimpse is found in Maderno’s sculpture of the scene that met their eyes that day: