Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Feast of Ss Cosmas and Damian

Saints Cosmas and Damian are said to have been brothers from Arabia and physicians, who left their native place and settled in the Mediterranean port city of Aegea in Cilicia, modern south east Turkey. They practiced medicine without taking any fee for their services, for which reason the Greek Church gives them the title “Unmercenary Saints”, (ἀνάργυροι, literally ‘un-moneyed’, Slavonic ‘бєзсрєбрєники’), a title which they share with several others. During the persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century, their Christian charity brought them to the attention of the local Roman governor, and they were martyred for the Faith, along with their brothers Anthimus, Leontius and Euprepius. By the 5th century there were two churches named for them in Constantinople, and in 527, Pope Felix IV converted a building in the Roman Forum into a church in their honor. This church is particularly important not only because the original apsidal mosaic is still preserved, although much restored, but also because it was the first “sanctuarium” in Rome, i.e., a church named for Saints, but with no material connection to them. (Churches of the Virgin Mary are an obvious exception.)

The apsidal mosaic of the Church of Ss Cosmas and Damian in Rome. On the far left, Pope Felix IV offers the church which he has built to Christ and His Saints. One of the two brothers is presented to Christ on the left by Saint Paul, the other by St Peter on the right. Peter and Paul, as the patron Saints of Rome, are closer to Christ, and dressed as Roman senators; Cosmas and Damian are wearing clothes that evidently would have look foreign to the eyes of a sixth-century Roman, and their faces are darker. On the far right, St Theodore, whose church is not far away on the other side of the Forum, balances the composition; as a Greek, he is also dressed as a foreigner. Above St Paul’s head, a phoenix, the symbol of the resurrection of the body, perches on a leaf of a palm tree. 
They are among the Saints named in the Canon of the Roman Mass and the traditional form of the Litany of the Saints; along with four other Unmercenaries, (Cyrus and John, Panteleimon and Hermolaus), they are also named in the Preparation Rite of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. The Emperor Justinian I (527-565) attributed to their intercession his recovery from a serious illness, and granted special privileges to the city of Cyrrhus in Syria, where their relics had been brought after their martyrdom. Many churches now claim to have their relics, among them the Jesuit church of St Michael the Archangel in Munich.


In the fifteenth century, they became particularly prominent in Florence as patron Saints of the de facto (and later de jure) ruling family, the Medici, whose name means “doctors. In 1437, the Dominican convent of San Marco, newly established in an old Benedictine foundation, was completely renovated at the expense of the Medici family. The painter Fra Angelico, one of the founders of the community, was commissioned to do a large altarpiece depicting the Madonna and Child surrounded by various Saints, with Cosmas and Damian kneeling before them in front of the group.

The main panel of the San Marco altarpiece, by Blessed Fra Angelico, 1438-40
The healing of Justinian is depicted in one of the predella panels
A particularly bizarre miracle is reported of them in the Golden Legend of Bl. Jacopo da Voragine. Shortly after Pope Felix built their church in Rome, the guardian was taken ill with a cancer that destroyed one of his legs. As he was sleeping one night, Ss Cosmas and Damian came to him, and not only removed the diseased leg, but substituted it with a new leg taken from the body of an Ethiopian, who had died that very day and been buried in the cemetery of the nearby church of St Peter-in-Chains.

Ss Cosmas and Damian Heal the Guardian of Their Church, by the Master of Los Balbases, ca. 1495

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