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Santa Cecilia by Stefano Maderno: A Sculpted Corpse

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Santa Cecilia 1610


At the High Altar of the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome, you will find this poignant, moving, and eerie marble sculpture of a corpse.


The baroque work of art was executed by the sculptor Stefano Maderno after the incorrupt body of the 2nd century Roman Martyr known as Saint Cecilia was discovered entombed under the Alter of the Church. After the discovery of her body, Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfrondrato commissioned a renovation of the Church, including a new tomb for the Saint.


Santa Cecilia was a noble Roman who distributed all her possessions to the poor. Her act of charity enraged the monk Almachius who ordered her to be burned. When the flames did not harm her, she was beheaded. She became the patroness of musicians and Church music, because, as she was martyred, she supposedly sang to God.


Maderno’s sculpture is said to replicate the way that Antonio Bosio described the Saint at the moment of her discovery: namely on her side, uncorrupt, clothed in drapery, and with her veiled hear turned eerily towards the ground. This fostered a legend that the sculpture was modelled on the very corpse of St Cecilia herself. However, it has since been proven that the statue is Maderno’s own invention, inspired by the words of Bosio as well as studies of ancient sculptures.


The sculpture’s pose exhibits a limpness which recalls the weight of a body no longer living, and grants the sculpture a heavy emotive intensity. On Santa Cecilia’s exposed sculpted neck, there is a thin but very noticeable slash; the mark of her beheading.


Visit the church to see this poignant and unsettling work of art, and to experience the chilling air that surrounds it.


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