My older sister came to campus to visit for a couple of days over Thanksgiving Break. On Monday, we gave a toast while ABBA’s “Thank You for the Music” played in the background — a ritual we have been doing since we can recall. It wasn’t my birthday, but it was still a day to celebrate. Nov. 22 is the patron day of Saint Cecilia — the saint of music and musicians, and my very own patroness.
I grew up Catholic in Spain, where the culture of venerating saints is very much alive. Most people have a saint according to the name they were given at birth. It is certainly not as big of a deal as celebrating one’s birthday, and people’s dedication varies greatly — some people don’t acknowledge their saints, while others make a whole celebration around them. My family is the latter case.
It is a wonderful thing to be named after the patron saint of music, with which I am tremendously intertwined. I have always been inclined to it — my mother says I used to hum made-up melodies while playing with my toy cars. I loved hearing and reading stories about all of the saints, but Saint Cecilia in particular. Hagiography (the study of saints) has always fascinated me — reading descriptions in the Bible, analyzing the forms they take in narratives, songs and movies and most importantly, their depictions in churches.
I remember attending mass and zoning out. I’d become fixated with the golden panel paintings on the walls, the sculptures past the altar, the fine decorations in the ceilings, the floor mosaics, the relics … every church I went to was similar, yet different. They shared the cross-shaped structure of the interior, the altar and the ceilings, yet they all had diverse architectures and decorations, devoting their attention to specific biblical figures — saints, angels, apostles and congregations, among others.
In my local parish, there was a statue of Saint Lucy, patron saint of the blind, which left an imprint in my memory. Her eyes were carved out and there was a peaceful anguish to her features — the kind where suffering and release come together in the form of martyrdom. Her hands were held out, holding her eyes. I was no older than five when I first saw that, and by “saw”, I mean I really understood what was before me.
I wasn’t older than ten when I saw “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.” I barely remember anything from it, but I took away one thing: She was a warrior, a woman warrior! Something in me shifted that very same day; seeing the metal armor made me want to grow armor of my own.
Female saints became my first encounter with feminism and art. Female soldiers, court musicians, queens who died unmarried, having been partisan, bold and fierce. I was being told who I could grow up to be, but only within a certain context that I felt I did not fit into, most of the time. Yes, these women had died tragically, but they had done so fighting for what they wanted. They were called crazy, accused of being witches and even tortured for speaking up. But as much as some were victimized, the spirit of the brave remained. For what it’s worth, they died for the generations to come.
The common Christian saying is that “Christ gave his life for us,” but the voices I often listened to were those that were the quietest. Those that whispered to me “do it” from the apse mosaic, as the golden locks of Saint Catherine intertwined with her sword and triumphantly pointed at me. And Mary assertively told me, “You are strong,” while she held Christ’s body, defeated, grieving and in the summit of sorrow.
I lost faith in the church five years ago. For personal reasons, I outgrew the dogma that I had been devout to for the entirety of my childhood. The voice of that invisible being grew fainter and fainter until I could no longer hear it. In all honesty, part of me chose not to hear it altogether.
I like to think it took a different shape — the stories I grew up hearing became a part of me, and I continued to see the images I had become accustomed to seeing in church. The settings have just changed: I see Mary through a glass screen in museums, I talk to Joan of Arc on the days where courage seems like a heavier burden than defeat, I converse with Cecilia when I play notes on the piano. I owe much of myself to the dimly lit corridors I visited every Sunday. There they were, my first encounters with art — feminist art.
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at email@example.com.