Virgin Cults and Raphael's Santa Cecilia

September 24, 2012

Raphael's astounding Santa Cecilia was one of the major highlights of the Late Raphael exhibition at the Prado. In preparing a summary of this picture, the distinctive musical elements of the composition initially seemed to be the most dominant aspect of the literature on the piece. However, a closer examination of the patron and the intended recipient of the work revealed a fascinating glimpse into the turmoil of the Italian wars in the early sixteenth century, and its psychosocial effect on the populations affected by this conflict. Historians examining the period noted the prevalence of "The Cult of the Virgin", characterised by the reverence of chaste married women during the period between 1506 and 1520 in particular. One of these women was Elena Duglioli, wife of a Bolognese notary Benedetto Dall'Olio. It was in honour of this unique woman that Raphael was sought to portray Saint Cecilia, the most famous of chaste visionaries. The following post draws on many sources, aiming to provide a succinct and demystified account with an emphasis on the panel and its patrons.

Santa Cecilia
Saint Cecilia in Ecstasy,  The Vision of Saint Cecilia
c.1514 (De Vecchi 1987 ; Meyer zur Capellen 2008) ; c.1515-16 (Henry and Joannides 2012)
Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Picture Gallery), Bologna. Italy. inv. 577
Oil on wood panel, transferred to canvas
238.5 x 155 cm
Listed by custodian institution as an autograph work by Raphael

c.1514 Commissioned for the chapel of Elena Duglioli Dall'Olio, wife of Benedetto Dall'Olio at the Convent of San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna.
1796 Removed to Paris by Napoleonic forces ; canvas transfer occurred in 1803.
1815 Returned to Bologna, now in the National Picture Gallery.

Subject - Iconography and composition
The central figure of Saint Cecilia is surrounded by saints. On the far left is Saint Paul, holding a letter and sword while gazing downwards in deep contemplation. A graceful Saint John the Evangelist stands behind Saint Cecilia's right hand side, clearly identifiable by his iconographic attribute - an eagle, which sits on large bound book at his feet, representing his gospel. The figure of Saint John  gazes directly at Saint Augustine, who stands behind Saint Cecilia's left hand side. On the far right is Mary Magdalene, identified by her customary ointment jar, with her head turned directly toward the viewer. Saint Cecilia is the only figure glancing upwards, aware of the heavenly choir above. The 1568/9 edition of Vasari provides this succinct description:
In it is a S. Cecilia, who, entranced by a choir of angels on high, stands listening to the sound, wholly absorbed in the harmony; and in her countenance is seen that abstraction which is found in the faces of those who are in ecstasy. Scattered about the ground, moreover, are musical instruments, which have the appearance of being, not painted, but real and true; and such, also, are some veils that she is wearing, with vestments woven in silk and gold, and, below these, a marvelous hair-shirt.[1]
The golden dress and hair shirt referred to corresponds to the description of Saint Cecilia in the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), also known as the Legenda Sanctorum (Legends of the Saints) - originally a thirteenth century text which was a popular source of ideas for artists of the later Middle Ages and Renaissance:
When this blessed virgin should be espoused to a young man named Valerian, and the day of the wedding was come, she was clad in royal clothes of gold, but under she wore the hair.[2]
It has been noted that only Saint Cecilia is depicted in sandals, with the other saints in bare feet, (although Saint Augustine's feet are not visible). Along with her heavenward gaze, this has been interpreted to indicate Saint Cecilia's purity and ascendancy over the other saints in this arrangement.

The depiction of the heavenly choir bathed in light is another noteworthy feature of this altarpiece. The mode of colour used to depict the figures in the heavenly realm place precedence on light over precise indications of form. Such an innovation in Raphael's work is not seen in earlier altarpieces from the Umbrian and Florentine periods. A plausible argument for this feature appearing in the latter Roman phase of Raphael's works was his exposure to Venetian artists such as Sebastiano del Piombo, known for his bold use of colour and light. Another aspect of this type of use of colour may be related to an increasing familiarity with fresco technique, which requires rapid execution and allows less intricate detail, thereby encouraging broader brushwork and a generally lighter tonality.

Interpretation - the story of Elena Duglioli Dall'Olio
A wide range of interpretations have been proposed for this image, an overview of which is presented by Mossakowski[3] and Connolly[4] among others. The choice of saints in this picture is described in terms of its local importance - with Bologna's association with Holy relics of Saint Cecilia presented by King Henry VII to Julius II. On Saint Paul's scroll, now only visible in underdrawing is Ad Corinth - possibly a reference to Saint Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, which describes a visionary experience of a man who "was caught up into Paradise and heard words said that cannot and may not be spoken by any human being."[5]

Of primary significance is the correlation between Saint Cecilia and Elena Duglioli Dall'Olio, herself regarded as a visionary from around 1506 to her death in 1520, and later beatified in the eighteenth century. Marina Romanello contextualises Elena's story in relation to the "Virgin Cults" of the early 16th century, particularly in Bologna:
She lived a largely anonymous life until 1506 when a miraculous circumstance began to be circulated which constituted the principal attribute of her supposed sanctity. Although married for eighteen years, she preserved her virginity in the bounds of wedlock. Beginning at this moment, the woman’s private life and the construction of her hagiographic legend advanced together and were closely intertwined. Based on this highly unusual attribute of her sanctity is the proposed and increasingly sought after conjunction of Duglioli first with Saint Cecilia, the other most celebrated and accredited virgin wife and later with the Madonna. But in the development of the cult of this “living saint”, along with the desired similarity to such substantiated and unquestioned exemplars, it is necessary to consider the no less relevant factors that proceeded specifically from the Bolognese environment.[6]
Zarri aims to adds a broader social and political context to this part of Elena's story, noting that veneration of pious women became more widespread between the years 1506-1520, especially in  the regions contested during the Italian wars.[7] Romanello further clarifies this point,
Duglioli’s case is to be situated in a context of this kind: the years 1506 to 1520, the period which saw the growth of the cult of the married virgin, was one of the most dramatic and troubled of the Italian wars and particularly in Bologna, marked by the violent overthrow of the Bentivoglio lordship and the full restoration of Papal sovereignty.[8]
Documentary sources
No direct records survives of the transaction between the artist and patron. Secondary accounts verify that the painting was created for the Dall'Olio Chapel in the Church of San Giovanni at Monte in Bologna. Romanello clarifies,
Also according to the manuscript legend of the Beata (Duglioli)[9] it would have been directly due to the personal relationship between the charismatic Bolognese, Pietro da Lucca and Antonio Pucci that the decision emerged to commission the Chapel of Saint Cecilia in the Church of San Giovanni in Monte, that was then being rebuilt; it would also have been [according to the manuscript legend] the Bishop of Pistoia (ie. Antonio Pucci) who was responsible for the commission and the full payment for the celebrated altarpiece by Raphael that the chapel contained.
The panel remained in this location until it was removed from Italy by Napoleonic forces in 1796. The original frame, perhaps designed by Raphael, is still in place in the Church of San Giovanni in Monte - and contains a copy of the Santa Cecilia. The frame in which the painting is now shown in the National Picture Gallery in Bologna is a replica of this original. The literature reveals some debate over design of the frame, and speculation about who may have constructed it. More recently, Giovanni da Udine, one of the more gifted and inventive of Raphael's Roman collaborators has been suggested as a contributor to the design of the frame, as well as the fascinating array of musical instruments at the base of the picture.[10]

The great fame of this painting can be traced back at least as far as Vasari, who relates the effect of the panel on its arrival in Bologna, where Francesco Francia, a distinguished local painter of that time, received it with instructions for its installation:
Raffaello's panel was divine, not so much painted as alive, and so well wrought and coloured by him, that among all the beautiful pictures that he painted while he lived, although they are all miraculous, it could well be called most rare. Wherefore Francia, half dead with terror at the beauty of the picture, which lay before his eyes challenging comparison with those by his own hand that he saw around him, felt all confounded, and had it placed with great diligence in that chapel of S. Giovanni in Monte for which it was destined; and taking to his bed in a few days almost beside himself, thinking that he was now almost of no account in his art in comparison with the opinion held both by himself and by others, he died of grief and melancholy, so some believe, overtaken by the same fate, through contemplating too attentively that most lifelike picture of Raffaello's...

However, certain others say that his death was so sudden, that from many symptoms it appeared to be due rather to poison or apoplexy than to anything else. Francia was a prudent man, most regular in his way of life, and very robust. After his death, in the year 1518, he was honorably buried by his sons in Bologna.[11]
Vasari's description of Francia's reaction is not corroborated by any other primary source and is generally regarded as apocryphal. Francia's death on 5 January 1517 thus offers a terminal date for the picture's completion, and subsequent delivery to Bologna.

Preparatory designs
Two drawings exist, a modello attributed to Gianfancesco Penni, and a drawing of Saint Paul attributed to Raphael. Both of these renderings reveal notable differences from the finished painting, and it is assumed other studies were prepared, further evolving the desig.

i. Santa Cecilia - modello attributed to Gianfrancesco Penni.
c.1514. 270 x 160 mm. Brush, wash and white over black chalk on paper. Petit Palais. Musee des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris. Inv. Dutuit 1980. nb. an engraving of this modello was created by Marcantonio Raimondi in c.1514.

Henry and Joannides (2012) provide a description:
The modello was probably drawn in 1514, the year that construction of the [Dall'Olio] Chapel began... It is rather perfunctory: the pipes, for example, do not fall from the saint's organ and little is made of the earthly instruments. It shows the male saints detached from one another, while both Cecilia and the Magdalen look upwards; it is thus very different from the elaborate and precisely focused orchestration of gazes in the final painting.[12]

ii. Saint Paul - drawing attributed to Raphael.
c.1515-1516. 316 x 152 mm. Red chalk over black chalk traces. Haarlem. Teylers Museum. Inv. L26

click to enlarge

A description of the Teylers drawing is also provided by Henry and Joannides.
This is the majestic study for Saint Paul, which was probably made from the same model as the famous nude drawing sent to Durer (Vienna, Albertina, Bd. V. 17575), dated 1515 by its recipient. It is illuminated from the right. This suggests that the final phase of the design was underway either that year or the next, concurrent with the last stages of work on the tapestry cartoons. Indeed, the compositional manner of the Santa Cecilia closely relates to the columnar composition of the cartoons.[13]
Physical properties
Two essays detailing technical examination of the painting have been published, the first by Rossi Maranesi in 1990 for the Princeton Raphael Symposium[14], and more recently in 2007, by Borgia et al.[15] The 1990 publication reported the findings of the analysis and restoration performed in 1976-1979, completed by Ottorino Nonfarmale. This examination compared the physical properties of the Santa Cecilia with two other Roman era works, the Madonna di Foligno and the Transfiguration, both at the Vatican. 

The canvas transfer is recorded as having been completed in 1803 by F.T Hacquin in Paris.[16] Very little remains of the original wooden support. Borgia et al note that the condition of the wood at the time of the transfer appears to have been poor, and no clarification of the species of wood is reported. A preparatory layer based on lead white has been observed from paint sample cross-sections, varying to include a red lake underpainting beneath the blue of the sky, which is also noted in the Madonna di Foligno. Real gold has been used in the haloes, but not in Saint Cecilia's dress ; regarding the gold in the haloes, Borgia et al  clarify "XRF (X-Ray Fluoroscopy) showed that the gold is very pure, without impurities of silver."[17]

In 2007, the analysis published by Borgia et al revealed some new discoveries,
The re-examination of the painting has brought forth new information indicating the genesis of of the composition and the working methods, especially concerning the insertion of the instruments. The portable organ and the musical instruments were added only after the execution of the figures...During the painting of the organ, the top of some of the pipes lies over that of the coat [of Saint Augustine]. The infrared reflectogram also shows that the right sleeve of Saint Cecilia was first painted without a hand and that the latter was added later with the organ.
The instruments have been realised in thin layers  of paint, which now allow underlying brushwork to be visible (an effect that is likely a result of the passage of time). A pentimento is reported in the cymbals on the ground, as well as a modification of Saint Paul's sword, "...the end of [which], painted before the instruments, has been extended afterwards, up to the triangle and flute, to avoid giving the impression that the tip of the sword is in the air."[18]

Attribution status and degree of authorship
The Santa Cecilia has always been regarded as an autograph work by Raphael, and is one of the few examples of his latter Roman phase where the master's hand is perceived to be dominant. Vasari's statement that Giovanni da Udine was responsible for the striking depiction of instruments on the ground is still debated by scholars, with Meyer zur Capellen arguing in favour of Giulio Romano completed this section.[19] The Santa Cecilia is generally considered one of the defining works of Raphael's career, encapsulating the many influences on his composition and colour, and exemplifying his particular talent for artistic invention.

*This post is dedicated to Gemma Garcia for her kind assistance during my recent stay in Madrid.
*Special thanks also go to Dr. Edward Goldberg for the translation of the Duglioli material and for his kind support. 

1.  Vasari, G. Ekserdjian, D.  Life of Raphael Vol.1. pp.729-730 ; Life of Francia Vol. 1 pp.582-583

2. De Voragine, J. Caxton, W. (Trans.), Ellis, FS (ed.). The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Temple Classics. 1900. Vol. 6. p.115. Available online at via Fordham University link

3. Mossakowski, S. Raphael's St. Cecilia. An Iconographical Study. Zeitschrift fur Kunstgeschichte. 31. Bd., H. 1. 1968. pp. 1-26. JSTOR link

4. Connolly, T. Mourning into Joy: Music, Raphael and Saint Cecilia. Yale University Press. 1995. Preview available at Amazon link

5. Saint Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. Chapter 12. Verse 4. The translations of the original Latin Vulgate differs slightly across many versions. The original in Latin is cited "quoniam raptus est in paradisum et audivit arcana verba quae non licet homini loqui". The English translation quoted is taken from the Doauy-Rheims version. Comparisons of translations can be viewed at link 

6. Romanello, M. Elena Duglioli. Dizionario Biografico. Vol. 41 (1992). Online at Treccani. link English translation of excerpts by Dr. Edward Golberg.

7. Zarri, G. L'altra Cecilia: E. D. Dall'Olio. in Indagini per un dipinto: la S. Cecilia di Raffaello, Bologna 1983, pp. 83-118 (cited by Romanello)

8. Romanello. as cited above.

9. Romanello provides a list of sources related to the legend of Elena Duglioli. The Beata Manuscript dates to the 18th century source listed as "Arch. parrocchiale di S. Giovanni in Monte, B. Collina, Compendio della vita della beata E. D. dall'Olio (ms., XVIII sec.)" nb. Another commonly cited source on Elena Duglioli's life is Melloni, G. Atti o memorie degli uomini illustri in santità nati o morti in Bologna. 1780 Vol. 3. pp.300-339. Full text online via Google Books link 

10. Henry, T and Joannides, P. Late Raphael. Exh. Cat. Museo Nacional Del Prado. 2012. Cat. No. 6. pp.103-109.

11. Vasari. Life of Francia. As cited above.

12. Henry, T and Joannides, P. As cited above.

13. Henry, T and Joannides, P. As cited above.

14. Rossi Maranesi. R. A Technical Examination of Raphael's Santa Cecilia with Reference to the Transfiguration and the Madonna di Foligno. In The Princeton Raphael Symposium: Science in the Service of Art History. Shearman, J & Hall, MB. (eds.)  Princeton University Press. 1990. pp.125-134

15. Borgia, I. et al. Raphael's Saint Cecilia in Bologna: New Data About Its Genesis and Materials. In Raphael's Painting Technique: Working Practices Before Rome. Roy, A & Spring, M. (eds.) Proceedings of the 2004 Eu-Artech workshop. Nardini Editore. 2007. pp.93-99.

16. Rossi Maranesi, R. As cited above.

17. Borgia et al. As cited above

18. Borgia et al. As cited above

19. Meyer zur Capellen, J. (Trans. Polter, S) Raphael. Vol 2: Roman Religious Paintings ca.1508-1520. Arcos Verlag. 2005. pp.124-132.


Alberti's Window said...

What a lot of research you have presented here! Nice work, H.

I just have a question about a minor thing (you know how I love tangents and details!). You mentioned that the original frame "is still in place" but then mentioned a replica frame for the National Gallery canvas. Does this mean that the original frame is in Church of San Giovanni in Monte? Is there another work of art held by this original frame (which might be designed by Raphael)?

I wonder if the replica frame needed to be made in order to somehow better accommodate a canvas instead of a panel painting.

Unknown said...

Hi M! Sorry for not making this more clear - I have since edited the post. Yes, the original frame is still in situ at the chapel in San Giovanni in Monte. It now houses a copy of the Santa Cecilia - I would have to double check exactly when this copy was created and when the frame swap was made.

I do have an image of the chapel, which will be included in the OpenRaphael entry for this piece.

Kind regards

Dr. F said...


Thanks for a very well researched and beautifully presented post. The detail in the blown up image is incredible. I wonder if the intricate lacework on Cecilia's gown has any significance.

Speaking of Cecilia I don't think that her sandals indicate a status superior to the other saints. The saints in the painting don't have halos, a significant omission. But the bare feet would indicate that they are in a heavenly realm in the presence of God. Moses had to take off his sandals in the presence of God. Moreover, the three saints with bare feet were all contemporaries of Jesus. On the other hand, I think that Raphael depicted Cecilia still as an earthly woman caught up in ecstasy.

The choice of the surrounding saints is also interesting. Paul and Mary Magdalen were both converted sinners. That certainly does not apply to St. John but the church was named after him. Finally, I wonder why St. Augustine and not St. Ambrose who was more closely associated with Bologna.


Unknown said...

Hello Frank - many thanks for the contribution. I would recommend Thomas Connolly's volume for a more detailed journey into the theological aspects of this work.

I would like to offer a clarification though - the saints do indeed have haloes - and as noted under "physical properties" these were depicted with pure gold.

Many kind regards

Dr. F said...

Sorry about the halos. Looking at the blow up I can see St. John's.


Edward Goldberg said...

Frank—San Giovanni in Monte in Bologna is officiated by the Regular Lateran Canons (Canonici Regolari Lateranensi), also known as the Regular Canons of Saint Augustine (Canonici Regolari di Sant’ Agostino)—which would explain that saint’s presence in the altarpiece. If we are looking for converted sinners, I suppose that we could include him as well, since he was converted from Manicheanism by Saint Ambrose. The brocade on Saint Cecilia’s gown is dominated by a running pattern of “bronconi”, cut or pruned branches, which is normally a symbol of regeneration. There also seem to be stylized vines, which could make the “bronconi” grape stocks—with the evident sacramental implications. Best wishes, Ed G.

Dr. F said...


Thanks for the info. I'd never heard of "bronconi" before. Fascinating!

Also, Augustinians at S. Giovanni certainly point to Augustine in the Cecilia.


Thingumbob said...

This painting, like many of Rembrandt's, for example, is a Socratic dialogue. While Aristotelians and Romantics profess that music derives from titillation of the senses, Raphael like the Augustians in the orbit of Nicholas of Cusa rightly understood that truly human music is the essence of an unheard dialogue of ongoing and continuous loving composition of unfolding potential harmonic Creation. So like Poe's purloined letter the secret of this drama is hidden ion plain sight, but too many have eyes but cannot see.

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