Cecilia, you're breaking my heart, you're shaking my confidence daily...

Thus sang Simon and Garfunkel on their 1970 hit. But what you might not know is that rather than a temperamental lover, they were in fact singing about Saint Cecilia – the patron saint of musicians, and the song is about writer's block.

Saint Cecilia

Saint Cecilia 1620-5

Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669)

The National Gallery, London

Paul Simon wasn't the first to opine to the saint, and he likely won't be the last – big names in the world of classical music such as Purcell, Handel and Britten all wrote pieces honouring her (albums of these works often feature paintings of her), and she is well represented in art. But who was she?

A question of faith

Cecilia was a Roman citizen who lived either in the second or third century AD (we're not sure exactly!). Her story may be fictional, but she was likely a real person and probably was martyred for her Christian faith. The story goes that she was a Christian who had taken a vow of chastity, but was forced to marry a pagan called Valerian. Instead of taking part in her wedding, she sang to God in her heart – hence why she later became the patron saint of musicians.

Saint Cecilia and the Angels

Saint Cecilia and the Angels 1836

Paul Delaroche (1797–1856)

Paintings Collection

When Valerian and Cecilia were to consummate the marriage, she told him that an angel was watching over her, and would punish him if he forced himself on her. Valerian asked to see the angel, and Cecilia told him to go to the Appian Way and be baptised by the Pope. He did so, and did indeed see the angel, crowning her with roses and lilies. Sadly, after his conversion, both were martyred by the state for their faith.

Saint Cecilia

Saint Cecilia

Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610–1662)

National Museums NI

In art, sometimes it can be difficult to know who is who – so artists would often leave clues in their paintings to identify the people. This is particularly true of saints. As the patron saint of musicians, Cecilia has any number of instruments that she could be shown with. However, artists have usually chosen an organ or a viol (or violin), sometimes depending on the period in which the artwork was created. Some have also included the angel crowning her with roses and lilies.

Viols, violins and cellos

In the Baroque period, Cecilia is often shown holding or playing a stringed instrument, which can be a violin or an earlier type known as a viol (today's double bass is essentially a bass viol).

In this one after Guido Reni, she holds a violin while looking heavenward.

Saint Cecilia

Saint Cecilia

Guido Reni (1575–1642) (after)

Walker Art Gallery

Here, in this work after Domenichino, she's moved on to a larger instrument – a bass viol or possibly the larger violone. However, she seems completely uninterested in reading the music that a helpful cherub is holding up. It's real music too, not just scribbled notes (although you'd need a zoomed-in version to be able to read it).

Saint Cecilia Playing the Viol

Saint Cecilia Playing the Viol 1675–1685

Domenichino (1581–1641) (after)

Royal College of Music

Moving on to this eighteenth-century depiction, Cecilia again opts for a larger instrument, but this is clearly a cello and not a viol. This represents the shift in musical history to the violin family and away from the viols of earlier times. The scene here is of Valerian seeing her crowned by an angel. The cello acts only as a prop and is not actually being played.

Saint Cecilia

Saint Cecilia

Luigi Vanvitelli (1700–1773)

Bradford Museums and Galleries

In Roman times, the main stringed instrument was a cithara, which was a kind of large lyre that was plucked with a plectrum, and is where the name 'guitar' comes from. Bowed stringed instruments like the violin didn't properly develop until the late medieval period, so as a prop in art, these instruments are anachronistic.

Organs and mistranslations

Many paintings of Saint Cecilia feature an organ – either in the background or with Cecilia herself playing it. Although the organ is an instrument, and therefore is something you might expect to be in a painting of the patron saint of musicians, it actually stems from a mistranslation of Latin.

At some point in the late medieval period, at the beginning of the Mass dedicated to her, the phrase 'candendibus organis' was transcribed as 'cantantibus organis'. This changed the meaning from 'between the instruments of hot torture' to 'singing with the organ'. So be thankful that there are lots of images of lovely organs, and not of horrible torture.

Saint Cecilia Playing the Organ

Saint Cecilia Playing the Organ

Justus Sustermans (1597–1681) (attributed to)

National Trust, Stourhead

You might think that, just as with bowed stringed instruments, including an organ with a Roman saint is also anachronistic, but in the ancient Greek and Roman world there was a type of organ powered by water, known as a hydraulis. While the depictions in these paintings look much more like the contemporaneous chamber organs found in the musical Baroque, they're not so different from the ancient water organ.

Saint Cecilia

Saint Cecilia c.1630

Carlo Bononi (1569–1632) (attributed to)

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Where they would differ most is in the notes they would play. Music of the ancient world is largely reconstructed through research and guesswork – we don't have very much notation before around AD 800, and what we do have is not easily understood in terms of musical notation we would recognise today.

Saint Cecilia

Saint Cecilia 1649

Guercino (1591–1666)

Dulwich Picture Gallery

As an example – the ancient Greeks wouldn't have used the major and minor scales employed by much of western classical and pop music of the last five centuries. Instead, they used a series of groups of notes known as modes. There is no definitive answer as to what any of them sounded like, although many experimental groups try to reconstruct them as best as they can.

Real people who wanted to be Cecilia

When you're a fashionable lady having your portrait done, you want to show yourself off in the best light. One way of doing this was a kind of historical dress up where you'd be painted as a figure from history or myth.

If you wanted to show off your musical credentials, then one of the muses might do – but Saint Cecilia was also a good option. Here's Louis XIV's second wife, Madame de Maintenon, as Cecilia.

About a century later we have Elizabeth Linley, wife of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Elizabeth Linley (1754–1792), Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan as Saint Cecilia

Elizabeth Linley (1754–1792), Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan as Saint Cecilia 1775

Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792)

National Trust, Waddesdon Manor

Linley was a noted singer, daughter of the composer Thomas Linley, and involved in the Blue Stockings Society of artistic women. As well as this work by Joshua Reynolds, she was also painted by Thomas Gainsborough.

Finally to complete the triad, here's that Georgian beauty (possibly best remembered as the lover of Lord Nelson), Lady Hamilton.

Lady Hamilton as Saint Cecilia

Lady Hamilton as Saint Cecilia late 18th C–early 19th C

Richard Westall (1765–1836)

National Maritime Museum

She was painted many times by the artist George Romney, often in the guise of other figures from myth or history – Cassandra, Mary Magdalene, Circe, Titania. So it's not surprising to find her depicted as the saint.

The artist Richard Westall was Queen Victoria's art teacher when she was still a princess!

A Pre-Raphaelite revival

Although the fashion for pretending to be a saint largely died out in portraiture, the Pre-Raphaelites loved this kind of composition – a serious woman, a musical prop, perhaps some floral crown accompaniment.

'Music Sweet Music' (Saint Cecilia)

'Music Sweet Music' (Saint Cecilia) 1880s

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919)

National Trust, Wightwick Manor

This work is by Evelyn de Morgan. Her Cecilia looks as if she's just passing the keyboard, trying out some chords for a new tune.

Saint Cecilia

Saint Cecilia c.1896

John Melhuish Strudwick (1849–1937)

Sudley House

This Cecilia is by John Melhuish Strudwick, who worked in a Pre-Raphaelite style. Strudwick was studio assistant to both his uncle, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and Edward Burne-Jones. Although you can see the detail of her hands, the keyboard itself isn't very accurate, with the black and white notes oddly arranged.

Saint Cecilia

Saint Cecilia 1903

Frederick Marriott (1860–1941)

Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library

Finally, this one is by Stoke-on-Trent-born artist Frederick Marriott. He learned his craft as a pottery painter, and then moved on to other mediums. Here he has used an effect with the paint to create a mother-of-pearl look, but his keyboard features just the white notes. Whether this was an attempt at recreating a hydraulis or just a mistake, we will probably never know...

So strike up the band and whistle a happy tune. Saint Cecilia's feast day is celebrated on 22nd November and she continues to be a powerful symbol in art and music.

Andrew Shore, Head of Content at Art UK