Rome, SS Cosmas and Damian

Also known as SS Cosma e Damiano
Era 6AD
Location Via dei Fori Imperiali, 1, 00186 Roma RM, Italy

SS Cosmas and Damian was the first church to be built in the Forum, the monumental centre of Rome. Pope Felix IV (526-30) had the so-called Temple of Romulus, a small, round early fourth-century building leading into the Temple of Peace, converted into a church dedicated to the holy healers and martyrs, SS Cosmas and Damian. It was a deliberate decision. The church occupies a large audience hall which had formed part of the emperor Vespasian’s Temple of Peace, paid for by the plunder from the Jewish War of 70-71 AD: it was said that the treasures from the plundering of the Temple in Jerusalem had been stored here. This was also the area where doctors in the public service had been based. Felix died before the church was completed, that task falling to his successor, John II (533-35), whose monogram is on two basket capitals in the church, and who may have also sponsored the mosaic. Felix’s sixth-century church was remodelled in the seventeenth century: the existence of disembodied hands offering wreaths of victory on the Triumphal Arch give some indication of the changes made, as does the current apse arch, which together with the hefty and horrid baldacchino cuts off the view of the mosaic. At the same time, the floor level was raised by seven metres, bringing the mosaic disconcertingly close to the eyeline. At the back of the church now, a glass wall makes it possible to see down into the Temple of Romulus and to get a sense of how far the floor level has been tampered with. Despite this, the apse mosaic is impressive. A large and imposing Christ, in golden tunic and pallium, is shown on a deep blue background appearing (or descending) amidst an Axminster carpet of red and blue clouds, above a watery landscape. A standing group of figures salute his coming. To Christ’s right, St Paul brings forward one of the patron saints, whilst Bishop Felix, holding a model of the church, indicating his role as patron, lurks modestly in the background (this section has been largely restored: Felix was replaced by Gregory XIII with an image of Pope Gregory, which was in turn replaced in the sixteenth century; three bees, emblem of the Barberini family, hover above the flowers immediately to Felix’s left). On Christ’s left, St Peter ushers in the other patron saint, whilst St Theodore loiters behind them, dressed in civic costume with an astonishingly ornate cloak and fashionable long white stockings, and holding his crown of martyrdom. Both patron saints, the holy doctors Cosmas and Damian, hold their own crowns of martyrdom, whilst round the neck of the (viewer’s) right-hand saint is a leather bag holding his tools of the trade. A phoenix (generations of my students have described this unfortunate bird as a flamingo), symbol of the resurrection, sits in a palm tree behind the pope and the River Jordan runs along the bottom. The apex of the apse has also been restored. At the bottom of the whole scene, twelve very male sheep - the Apostles - approach a coy and sexless Lamb of God perched on a rock from which emerge the four rivers of Paradise. On the Triumphal Arch, the imagery is apocalyptic. A lamb (symbolising Christ) sits on a throne flanked by seven candlesticks (3 and 4), four angels (2 and 2), and then the four evangelist symbols, man (Matthew), lion (Mark), ox (Luke) and eagle (John), which double as beasts of the Apocalypse, two on each side. Below them, the elders and prophets and the elect were originally shown holding up their crowns: some wreaths and arms, looking very odd, are all that survive. The background is gold, but the upper register (the Lamb and his escort) is separated from the lower (the cheering elect) by yet more red and blue clouds. These mosaics may be sixth century, but they have also been dated to the seventh or even eighth centuries; if so, they may well have replaced sixth-century work.

The iconography of apse and arch shows Christ appearing in his glory; it may have brought the Second Coming to mind. Elements certainly suggest theophanic imagery visible in other mosaics of the period, both in Rome and elsewhere. The candlesticks and the elect are in the mosaics of S Maria Maggiore and S Paolo fuori le mura, the Lamb and the sheep (plausibly) at S Sabina and at S Apollinare in Classe. The red and blue clouds are visible at S Pudenziana and in Ravenna. There are also echoes of the Transfiguration seen in other sixth-century mosaics, such as St Catherine’s on Mount Sinai and S Apollinare in Classe again. Peter and Paul were a popular Roman motif and the presence of the name-saint together with that of the human donor became increasingly popular, used slightly later in the century at S Vitale in Ravenna, and the Eufrasian Basilica of Poreč, for example. Although Felix’s image (if it was there in the sixth century) is the earliest surviving mosaic example of the patron present in both the scene and the presence of the divinity, it reflects the translation of an already-existing motif across media and into a very public space. Images of the patron in the mosaic, never mind other media, had already been used in Constantine the Great’s St Peter’s and in S Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna. Nothing at SS Cosmas and Damian is unexpected in its theme, though there are variations in the representations – the red, blue and pink clouds, for example, are used in a different way to that of S Pudenziana. The mosaic of SS Cosmas and Damian (if it was indeed the fons et origio, rather than one of several) was to prove a very popular model for later mosaics in Rome. Details, from the phoenix to the carpet-clouds, not to mention the sheep and the candle-sticks, are repeated or evoked time and again in Roman mosaics across the centuries: at S Prassede, S Cecilia, S Marco, and even in paint at S Maria in Pallara.


Although the presence of a Christian church in the Forum was a sign of just how far Christianity had come since Constantine built churches on the edges of the city, it had taken a good two hundred years to get there and the Forum had lost much of its importance - by the sixth century, it was an increasingly deserted space. Nevertheless, it was an important gesture.

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