Contemplating with Raphael

Article, February 2019, Sound and Silence, Visual Art

Silence is not the non-existence of sound; it is rather both its absence and potential. That’s the logic underpinning the sense of a “pregnant pause” and the absurdity of the “silence of outer space.” Sound cannot exist in a vacuum, so it is meaningless to call outer space silent in a way that it is not meaningless to call it dark. Pauses can be pregnant only because they could ultimately bear sounds.

Music seems to depend on sound. Even when we imagine music silently, the mind’s attention may turn to a fantasy of sound that, as it were, verges on sounding and only happens to remain silent. Yet the silences within sounding music — those pregnant pauses framed by sound, like the one after the oboe solo has trailed off in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the grand pause before the shocking C-minor tutti in the first movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony — hint to us that music might exist without sound. “The music is in the silences,” runs a familiar platitude. But if this is true, then it must imply that there can be music made of neither sound nor silence: an ineffable music of “pure” meaning.

This is not too far from how the ancients thought of music. Music was the study not of sound, but of number and proportion in time. Together with arithmetic (number and proportion), geometry (number and proportion in space), and astronomy (number and proportion in space and time), it was one of the higher quadrivial arts, the foundations for the study of philosophy and theology. Sound was useful for studying music — just as mathematical notation and diagrams are useful for arithmetic and geometry — but sound was not confused with what music was. Music is number and proportion in time, and it led to the higher wisdom of philosophy and theology.


Raphael’s Ecstasy of St. Cecilia (c. 1516–17) is a picture of rich signs, trading heavily in this classical view of music. Immediately to either side of her are Sts. John the Evangelist and Augustine. John is recognized by the eagle that peaks out from his robes, his attribute and at the same time a symbol of perspicacity, the bird’s eye view that comes from true wisdom. Augustine agonized over the catch-22 of language and wisdom — he felt he could not speak the truth of something without first knowing it completely, yet he could not begin to know something without speaking about it (Confessions I, 1, 1).

John and Augustine are conversing about logos: they do not make a sound, but they are singing together in their hearts. John ascribed to the divine nature logos — thought, speech, meaning, reason, proportion, logic. Because music, for Augustine, is the ars bene modulandi, the art of number and proportion in movement, it can be a path to logos and so to true wisdom, which is love. “I remember the tears I shed at the Church’s song in the early days of my newly recovered faith, and how even today I am moved not by the singing as such but by the substance of what is sung” (Confessions X, 33, 50). Cantare amantis est: “Singing belongs to one who loves” (Sermon 336, 1). The unutterable meaning, the sense, the logos is where the music is, and it is love.

Further away from Cecilia, and yet also closer because they are in the foreground, are Sts. Paul and Mary Magdalene. Paul — his emblems are the sword of his martyrdom, a codex of the epistles, and his pensive beard — contemplates the smashed instruments, the emblems of vain musica mundana, at Cecilia’s feet. His expression is troubled. It was he who said, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2), so why is he looking down?

The epistle he holds, inscribed “COR,” seems like a key. It is perhaps an allusion to the clanging noise of words without love (1 Corinthians 13:1) or to his conversion vision in which he “heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell” (2 Corinthians 12:4), or perhaps simply shows that, even as he contemplates the broken strings (cordes), he is “singing and psalming in his heart” (in corde) (Ephesians 5:19).


Mary Magdalene’s amphora of balm reminds the viewer of how she wept to express something unutterable; her recourse was to an act of love without speech. Now again, without speaking, she gazes unflinchingly at the viewer, inviting us in to share Cecilia’s ecstasy.

Cecilia herself is “rapt,” in Shelley’s words, “in such inspiration as produced her image in the painter’s mind.” The sacred organ that she holds is depicted in the moment where she drops it. Its pipes will shortly clatter noisily to the ground and join the other broken instruments at her feet. But that noise is an eternal moment away, and in the preceding silence — masterfully depicted as the silence of the painting itself — Cecilia hears, or perhaps knows directly, the celestial music. The picture is polemical: it affirms the need for sound to evoke and incorporate — that is, literally make corporeal — a heavenly musica angelica if it is to fulfill its highest purpose, to refer back to that highest wisdom.

Yet even before we have seen and read these signs, even before they draw us into the ineffable silence of the picture and induce us to understand the undepicted hearts, the composition adumbrates all this at a glance. It is an upright format, but the eye is not too quickly drawn upward. One assumes it would be in a classical triangular composition, but any supposed triangle vanishes as soon as one tries to trace it with the eye. The ostensible apex is not a point but a line. The heavenly group seems less orderly than those below: they are off center, set in smaller, unequal groups. The base is not a line but a circle, with Cecilia, robed in gold like a sun, in the center and the saints orbiting her at equal intervals.

The two realms are conflated by Raphael’s use of color. In a chromatic chiasmus, each robe finds its counterpart in tint and shade in the other realm, opposite left to right and top to bottom. The terrestrial realm is an image of the celestial, and vice versa: the saints are united by their common contemplation, represented as their uniform spatial configuration, just as what unites those above is their sounding harmony, depicted in a way that would have appeared downright familiar to the sixteenth-century musician. Painted out of the picture, as it were, are the instruments at the bottom in drab tones. Yet they remain in the picture, as Paul’s gaze underscores.

Cecilia’s ecstasy, we finally apprehend, was not one in which she is caught up to heaven and escapes the bounds of earth, but rather one in which she saw the great eternal unity of all things visible and invisible, in heaven and on earth, of sound and silence, indeed of picture and viewer. For Mary Magdalene’s meaning is of course clear: “Won’t you join the circle to dance and sing with us?”


Matthew J. Hall is a historian and musician.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s