Located near to what was once the heart of Rome’s political center, the Church of Saints Cosmos and Damian – visited this week as part of the Lenten Station Church pilgrimage – is historically significant, demonstrating how the authority of Christ as superseding the authority of the Roman emperors has been recognized since the early days of Christianity.
Built before the Christianization of Rome by the emperor Maxentius as a temple dedicated to his deceased son Romulus, the Temple of Romulus was converted into a Church dedicated to Saints Cosmos and Damian in 527. Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, donated the temple (located on the Via Sacra of the Roman Forum), and what is believed to be the adjacent library, to Pope Felix IV. Extensive renovations were done to the Church in the 16th century by Pope Pius IV; among these included the raising of the floor to protect it from the Tiber’s flood plain, and the addition of side chapels.
Saints Cosmos and Damian, to whom the church is dedicated, were twin brothers from Arabia who were martyred under the Diocletian persecution of the Christians in the 3rd century. Both physicians, they were “moneyless saints,” offering medical services to those in need without seeking payment.
Gregory DiPippo, a Vatican guide and Rome correspondent for the New Liturgical Movement website, explained to ZENIT how, previous to the dedication of Saints Cosmos and Damian, most Christian Churches had been built on the periphery of Rome; it was only over time that churches started being built toward the center of the city.
The Church of Cosmos and Damian, he said, “is the first ‘strong foot in the door’ of the Christianization of the Forum itself.”
At the time of its dedication, DiPippo continued, this church was unique, in that “it is the first Sanctuarium, or church, dedicated to saints with no material connection to them. The tradition in Rome was – with the exceptions of Christ and the Virgin – that Churches are dedicated to Saints because there is some material connection to them. For instance: Saint Peter’s is on Saint Peter’s tomb, Saint Clements is on Saint Clement’s house, etc. This is the first sanctuarium where they chose a dedication simply because they like the saint.”
It is also significant, DiPippo noted, that the saints chosen for this church were Arabs. “We’re not just creating a sanctuaria, but also a penetration of devotion of Eastern saints who have no material connection to the place. [Saints Cosmos and Damian] is generally considered to be the first example of that.”
Artistic representation of the imperial authority of Christ and His Church
Although the current church is the product of extensive renovations, the original mosaic above the apse is still intact, although it has been heavily repaired over the centuries. This mosaic shows Christ descending from Heaven on Jacob’s ladder, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul (the patron saints of Rome), Saints Cosmos and Damian, Pope Felix IV, and Saint Theodorus.
In the mosaic, Christ is dressed in the golden garb typical of a Roman emperor. This was common motif in mosaics from this period, DiPippo explained, as it was done in response to the occasional practice of emperors to try and impose heretical doctrines on the public. This particular mosaic, for instance, was made in 523 following the Acacian schism of Constantinople.
“When you see Christ dressed in this kind of garb,” he said, “you are seeing the iconography of imperial power transferred to Christ and the saints. These are the ones who are really in charge of the Church. Christ is the authority: not the emperor.”
Saints Peter and Paul, moreover, standing on either side of Christ, are dressed as Roman senators. “This is to show that Christ is the emperor, who is the head of the State. These are his chief counselors.”
Along these lines, Saints Peter and Paul are shown in the mosaic as “presenting Cosmos and Damian to Christ.”
The two saints, dressed in a fashion more typical of the Arab world, are deliberately made to look different from Saints Peter and Paul who are, through the gesturing of their hands, “enfranchising these people as Romans. They are presenting them to the emperor.”
How Saints Cosmos and Damian became a station Church
Centuries ago, the Church of Rome did not celebrate Mass on Thursdays – a custom which is still followed to this day in the Ambrosian Rite. The Greek Rite solidified this custom by not celebrating the Liturgy at all during Lent, a custom they attempt to impose upon the Roman Church as well.
In the 8th century, responding to the Greek’s attempt to impose the non-celebration of weekday Mass during Lent upon the Western Rites, Pope Gregory II called for the Mass to be celebrated on these Thursdays.
For this reason, DiPippo explained, they chose the church of Saints Cosmos and Damian, and evidence of this remains within the Tridentine Missal. The Collect of Thursday Mass on the third week of Lent refers to the “blessed solemnity of Thy Saints Cosmos and Damian.”
The Gospel speaks of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, making reference to Saints Cosmos and Damian, who were both saints of healing.
The Epistle used for this day, which is from the book of Jeremiah, is one of dedication, said DiPippo: “It would appear that probably Pope Felix, possibly Pope Gregory, composed a Mass for the dedication of this Church, and this is a relic of it.”