Minor Roman Basilicas: Santi Cosma e Damiano

In another article here, we discussed the contributions of Pope St. Paschal I to the ecclesiastical art of the Eternal City, rooted in Rome's own venerable tradition, and there we discussed some of the important mosaics he left to us. In that article we mentioned the church of S. Cosma e Damiano and its own apsidal mosaic which seems to have served as a template for his own work so it seemed apropos to turn our attention to that basilica, specifically with a focus on the sixth century apsidal mosaic of this basilica. Before we get into that though, I would mention that this basilica is located adjacent to the Roman Forum. Originally the entrance to the basilica was actually through the Roman Forum, by way of the early fourth century Temple of Romulus. 

Temple of Romulus in the Roman Forum

If you enter into this building today off the forum, it is now again a distinct building, though you will see the remnants of medieval iconographic work within. 

The basilica proper, now accessed off a street adjacent to the Forum, was founded in the year 521. Like any church or chapel in Rome, there is plenty of interest to see, but the real star of this particular show are the antique mosaics which feature the theme of the Second Coming of Christ. Set on a beautiful deep blue background, Christ stands on red coloured clouds -- think here of the way clouds look at the time of a beautiful sunrise -- and to either side of Him are found -- who else -- Ss. Peter and Paul. Peter and Paul are both clothed in senatorial togas, while Christ himself wears the golden robes of an emperor. With Peter and Paul are the figures of the brothers Ss. Cosmas and Damian, the patronal saints of the basilica. Beside them are the figures of Pope Felix IV -- the founder of the basilica -- and on the other side the martyr St. Theodore.  Various symbols related to martyrdom can be found in the mosaic, from the crowns held by Cosmas and Damian to the palm trees at the edges of the mosaic. As with Paschal's mosaics, the phoenix (a symbol of the resurrection) is present as well.

While the mosaics have undergone various restorations, I would draw our readers attention to the particular quality in which the figures are depicted. By comparison with many later mosaics, these are particularly refined (just as is the fifth century apsidal mosaic of Santa Pudenziana). On this point it is worth noting that in our contemporary mindset, we tend to think of progress in a very linear fashion, with the passage of time always necessarily leading to better and greater developments, but these mosaics are a good reminder that sometimes progress is made and then knowledge and skills acquired over the centuries might be lost over time, once again needing to be rediscovered in still later ages.

Christ wearing a golden robe. The "I" could either stand for his name in Latin, Iesus, or "Imperator" (or both). 

Pope Felix IV holding the model of the church as its founder. The phoenix can be seen above him sitting upon the branch of the palm. 

St. Paul with either St. Cosmas or St. Damian (tradition held they were identical twins so it is impossible to know who is who here). 

St. Peter with one of the saintly brothers -- the crown of martyrdom clearly visible here.

Visible in the image above are the twelve sheep, representing the apostles, and in the centre (not visible here) is the Lamb of God.

One can make out behind the figures the appearance of water which represents the Jordan river -- a symbol of the waters of baptism.

Beneath all of this is a Latin inscription of gold text set upon blue which reads:
The beautiful hall of God shines with metals in which the precious light of faith shines the more. A certain hope of salvation comes to the people through the doctor martyrs and the place increases in sacred honour. This thing Felix, unworthy high priest, brought to the Lord so that he may live in the ethereal citadel of the Pole.
Above on the triumphal arch is found imagery taken from the Book of Revelation. It is not clear whether this mosaic was done at the same time or in the next century.  Regardless, what it shows is the Lamb of God with the scroll and the seven seals as well as the seven lamps (candles) mentioned in the Apocalypse.  Four angels can be seen, as can the symbols of two of the evangelists St. Matthew and St. John -- apparently the other two evangelists' symbols were at one time also present. Here too, if one looks closely, you can see the clouds of a red dawn beneath these figures.  Hands can also be made out, reaching up toward the Lamb, which signify the twenty-four elders mentioned in the Book of Revelation. 

It is worth noting about the basilica more generally that the original level of the floor was some seven metres lower than it is today -- having been raised during renovations undertaken during the pontificate of Urban VIII due to water issues. What was the original level of the floor of the basilica is now the crypt. During this same period the triumphal arch was also widened and side chapels were added.  Suffice it to say the altar and much of the remaining decoration of the basilica dates from this later period.  Here are a few quick looks.

A look back through the nave. The large glass, door like window looks down into the Temple of Romulus -- the former entrance.

Certainly worth a visit, but especially so for the mosaics. 

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.