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Saint Cecilia

Saint Cecilia was a Roman martyr who has been known as the patron saint of music since the fifteenth century. Literature narrates that as she heard the organ play at her wedding she sang a hymn praising God, vowing to remain chaste. She is said to have carried on singing through her martyrdom and in the three days of agony that followed. This painting was first brought to London in 1790 when it was purchased by Noel Joseph Desenfans from the French print-maker and dealer, Jean-Baptise Pierre Le Brun. At the time of its purchase, Saint Cecilia was thought to be a work by seventeenth-century Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci. As such, Desenfans hung it pride of place at the home in Charlotte (now Hallam) Street that he shared with fellow art dealer and co-founder of Dulwich Picture Gallery, Sir Francis Bourgeois. According to a record of the display scheme at Charlotte Street, Saint Cecilia hung in the lofty surroundings of the 'Skylight Room' amongst a cluster of masterpieces by other members of the Bolognese school. Significantly, however, it hung directly alongside a version of the celebrated Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds (DPG318). It is possible that Bourgeois and Desenfans paired the works according to their compatible themes - with Mrs Siddons being the most famous actress of the late eighteenth century and St Cecilia the patron saint of music - but it is also likely that this pairing was intended as a homage to Reynolds, placing his work amongst some of the best examples of the Bolognese school of painting he so admired. Either way, in order to make this a symmetrical pairing and the works equal in size, Bourgeois added wide strips around the Saint Cecilia canvas to enlarge it to the size of Mrs Siddons. These additions were removed during conservation in 2009.

Not currently on display

Attributed to Carlo Bononi
c. 1630
173 x 126 cm
Oil on canvas
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
Accession number
This picture and frame was adopted by The Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery with additional support from The Pilgrim Trust, 2011