Saint Cecilia was a Roman martyr in the second or third century, and has been known as the patron saint of music and musicians since the fifteenth century in the Christian tradition. Encircled in rich fabrics of gold and green, against a backdrop of draped heavy red cloth, Saint Cecilia looks upwards, her face illuminated by celestial light. Her fingers hover at the keys of an organ, its metal pipes visible on the left side of the painting. Saint Cecilia was said to have sung a hymn praising God and vowing to remain chaste as she heard the organ begin to play at her wedding. She is said to have carried on singing through her later martyrdom and in the three days of agony that followed, until her death.
This painting was first brought to London in 1790 when it was purchased by one of the founders of Dulwich Picture Gallery, Noel Joseph Desenfans (1744-1807), from the French print-maker and dealer, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813). At the time of its purchase, this painting was thought to be by the seventeenth-century Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), only later to be attributed to Carlo Bononi (1569-1632), a painter of the school of Ferrara, Italy. Before the painting arrived at the Gallery, Desenfans hung it in pride of place at the home in Charlotte (now Hallam) Street in London that he shared with fellow art dealer and co-founder of Dulwich Picture Gallery, Francis Bourgeois (1753-1811). According to a historic drawing of the display scheme at Charlotte Street, Saint Cecilia hung in the lofty surroundings of the 'Skylight Room' among a cluster of masterpieces by other members of the Bolognese school. The painting was hung directly alongside a version of the celebrated Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse by the British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). This paring likely came about because of the connections between the subjects – Sarah Siddons (née Kemble; 1755-1831) being the most famous actress of the late eighteenth century and Saint Cecilia the patron saint of music – and also as a tribute to Reynolds, in placing his work among some of the best examples of the Bolognese school of painting he so admired. Either way, in order to make this a symmetrical pairing, Bourgeois added wide strips to the canvas of Saint Cecelia to enlarge it to the size of Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse. These additions were removed during conservation in 2009.