The town of Albi in southwest France is home to Saint Cecilia Cathedral, a massive structure built by wealthy clergymen between the 13th and 15th Centuries. I toured the church in 2016 and was awestruck by the unusually elaborate murals, carvings, and statuary covering every inch of the interior. This lavish ornamentation contrasts starkly with the cathedral’s plain, fortress-like exterior. Standing outside the forbidding walls, it’s clear that the architects were sending a message about military might.
Among the decorations inside the church are several artworks depicting Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. A huge pipe organ, added in the 1800s, commands attention with its size and a mighty sound.
Who Was Cecilia?
Cecilia was a Roman pagan who converted to Christianity in the 2nd or 3rd Century. Few details are known about her life, but it’s generally accepted that she was martyred for her faith, possibly by beheading. She was buried in the Roman Catacombs of Saint Callistus, then later moved to a final resting place in the Church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome.
Cecilia’s role as patroness of musicians stems from a myth. The story goes that, following her religious conversion, she wished to remain a virgin and dedicate her life to Christ. Her parents, however, had other ideas and forced her to marry. But, on her wedding day, she sat apart from her husband, singing in her heart to God. Down through the centuries, this legend has inspired musicians and writers throughout the world to create songs, poems, concerts, and festivals.
My interpretation of Cecilia’s legacy is mostly symbolic and specific to Albi, France, at the time of the cathedral’s construction. Back then, the town’s Catholic residents lived alongside a heretical sect of Christians known as the Cathars (or Albigensians, because Albi was their home base in Europe). The Cathars lived a vegetarian lifestyle and opposed materialism. They believed in reincarnation and denied the Trinitarian doctrine of the Catholic Church. And, in spite of religious differences, they peacefully coexisted with their Catholic neighbors.
That peace ended in the 13th Century, when the French king and the Catholic pope decided they didn’t want the Cathars around anymore. They rallied soldiers for a Church-sanctioned crusade, committing horrible atrocities against the Cathars. In Albi, many died in mass burnings. The Cathars were wiped out completely.
Ironically, the crusade took place in the shadow of Cecilia’s namesake cathedral. She was martyred for her faith just as the Cathars were martyred for theirs. Outside the church, ugly crimes were committed in the name of the Catholic god; inside, lovely artwork of Cecilia depicts her playing music to the same god.
My Song about Cecilia
The genocidal events in medieval Albi and the artwork in the cathedral, inspired a metaphorical song, Quiet Cecilia. ∗