Saint Cecilia by John Melhuish Strudwick Cheshire Life: November 2018
On November 22nd, bells in churches all over the world will ring out in celebration of the feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
The story of Saint Cecilia is not a happy one. According to legend she was a noble lady of Rome who, despite having taken a vow of chastity, was forced by her parents to marry a pagan nobleman named Valerian. During her wedding Cecilia sat in silence refusing to engage with Valerian or the ceremony.
It was said that she was singing to God in her heart instead. On their first night together, Cecilia told Valerian that she was watched over by an angel sent by God to punish him if he sexually violated her. What happened next is unclear but ultimately Cecilia and her husband were murdered by a Roman Prefect called Turcius Almachius. Despite being struck on the neck three times with a sword she lived for three more days.
Saint Cecilia was a popular subject in Renaissance art. The opportunity to paint an attractive young lady playing a musical instrument combined with a strong moral message would have appealed to both artists and patrons alike.
Unlike most other depictions of Saint Cecilia, Strudwick shows her looking not up to heaven but down towards the keys of her clavichord. He said of this choice that ‘earth’s sweetest music is not an echo of heaven’s music, but something quite different. I have made my angel sad-faced because there’s always a sadness in our mortal songs’.
Strudwick’s work skillfully blended Renaissance and medieval styles as popularized by the pre-raphaelite movement that gained momentum during the reign of Queen Victoria. Visitors to Sudley House are frequently struck by the meticulous detail with which Strudwick paints the fabric and the background accessories.
This attention to detail meant Strudwick’s speed of production was very slow, a factor which may have contributed to his two principal patrons, the Liverpool ship owners William Imrie and George Holt, withdrawing their support and essentially prematurely ending his artistic career.