This ethereal painting depicts Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. She sits, accompanied by an angel, playing an organ. Cecilia was a Christian martyr from the second or third century venerated for her vow to remain chaste even upon her marriage to Valerianus, a Roman nobleman. He acquiesced to her wish, on the condition that he could see the angel to whom she claimed to be betrothed. The angel appeared, and gave the couple crowns made of lilies and roses; in this painting, a red rose can be seen in Cecilia's hair. Eventually Cecilia's devout Christian faith precipitated her martyrdom, which according to her early biographer Venantius Fortunatus (530-600?) occurred in Sicily. She was tortured with boiling steam (in some reports oil) and suffered blows to the neck but survived for three days, during which time she gave away her belongings to the poor. In the fifteenth century, Saint Cecilia became associated with music; by one account she invented the organ in order to play the heavenly music she heard in her heart. In 1584, she became the patron saint of the Academy of Music in Rome and her feast day, November 22, is often celebrated with musical concerts. Many Renaissance and Baroque artists, Stomer among them, depicted her with musical instruments; the organ became her particular attribute.
Born in Amersfoort near Utrecht, Stomer infused his work with the dramatic shadows and bright colors popular among Utrecht Caravaggisti such as Dirck van Baburen and Gerrit van Honthorst, in whose studio Stomer may have trained. Like these artists, Stomer went to Italy -- he was living in Rome by 1630 -- where he absorbed firsthand the work of Caravaggio. The present painting reveals his dedication to Caravaggesque themes: the light emanating from a single candle produces a dramatic juxtaposition of light and shadow. The viewer's attention focuses on the face of Saint Cecilia, who looks upward, absorbed in matters of heaven. Yet the light evokes the earthly pleasure as well, as it plays across her elaborate costume and the jeweled headband of the angel, lending a sumptuous air to the work. Over the course of his career, Stomer lived in various locales in Italy, moving to Naples shortly after 1633 and around 1640 traveling to Sicily. Given Cecilia's connection to Sicily, it may have been the home of the patron for this work.
This painting has storied nineteenth-century provenance. It belonged to the Spanish Royal Collection before being appropriated by Joseph Bonaparte, who in 1808 was appointed King of Spain by his brother Napoleon. After British, Spanish and Portuguese troops overthrew French rule in the Battle of Vitoria of 1813, Joseph Bonaparte took flight with a cache of war booty that included this painting, which at the time was attributed to Honthorst. Overtaken by a squadron of British Hussars, Bonaparte escaped, but not without leaving behind his carriages and the spoils within. The 1st Duke of Wellington had the re-captured paintings brought to England and upon seeing the collection, Lord Maryborough wrote to him, 'I have caused the packages taken at Vitoria and sent home by you to be carefully examined, and we found the Imperial to contain a most valuable collection of pictures, one which you could not have conceived' (E. Wellington, op. cit., p. x.). Subsequently, these paintings were given to the 1st Duke of Wellington by Ferdinand VII of Spain and entered the collection of Apsley House, London.