A Closer look at the Apsidal Mosaic of the Basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano

We have done a more general post on the Basilica of Ss. Cosmas e Damiano in the past, but the details of the splendid apsidal mosaic of the basilica is well worth pausing to stop and take a look at for its own sake.  As part of their series on the Station Churches of Rome, Crux Stationalis provided a series of photos that gave some very nice closeup details of this particular apsidal mosaic -- a mosaic very much situated in the Roman-Byzantine tradition with its deep blue (instead of gold) background. 

The mosaic in question is a depiction of the Second Coming of Christ -- the Parousia -- and is one of the earliest extant mosaics in Rome, dated to circa 526-530 A.D.  As is so often the case in Roman apsidal mosaics, Ss. Peter and Paul feature prominently, along with the namesakes of the basilica, Ss. Cosmas and Damian, and finally St. Theodorus and Pope Felix IV -- the patron of the basilica, shown holding his model of the church. 

As might be expected, restorations have happened over the course of that period of time, so how these might have varied in appearance from the time of their origination until now is somewhat an open question, however what strikes me in these earlier mosaics (and I would point here also to the character of the mosaic of the Basilica of S. Pudenziana) is the particular classicism in the way many of the figures which are depicted; they are also robust and show a particular expressiveness.

We begin with the central figure of Christ, shown wearing a golden robe with the Greek "iota" (i / I) placed upon it. This is an examples of what is called "gammadia"; their particular meaning is regrettably (but tantalizingly) lost in the mists of time, leaving us only to speculate.  One possible answer, given the context of the mosaic (the Second Coming) is that this character comes with reference to Christ's words in the gospel of Matthew 5:18-20:
For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
It seems a reasonable possibility, but it remains just that; one possibility. 

Here next we see the figure of St. Paul, his arm around either St. Cosmas or St. Damian (they were twins so distinguishing which is which is rather a guessing game) holding his martyr's crown -- both saints were executed under the Emperor Diocletian. 

St. Paul (as well as St. Peter) is depicted wearing a Roman senatorial toga. Interestingly, however, while St. Paul's toga includes the same iota gammadia as Christ's, St. Peter's does not. Whether there is any meaning to this is, again, unknown. 

On the lower band of the mosaic are found thirteen lambs; the central one depicts Christ, the Lamb of God (shown immediately below) and the twelve surrounding this represent the twelve apostles. I would point out here than even the lambs faces show the same characteristic expressiveness as that of the human figures shown above.

On this point of facial features, I would point out that the figure of Pope Felix IV has a rather different stylistic appearance than the other figures in these mosaics -- including even those of the sheep.  This no doubt points to it coming from a different period -- perhaps the result of restoration work. 

Here are some further images taken from some other sources.

Another look at the central image of Christ, shown within red clouds, representing the dawn -- an eschatological reference to the second coming.

St. Peter with either St. Cosmas or St. Damian. 

One of the twelve lambs, representing the twelve apostles, found on the lower band of the mosaic:

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