Built in the early 6th century AD, the Basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano (Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian) is the oldest church in the Imperial Forum in Rome. It adjoins an ancient Roman temple (which can be viewed through a glass wall in the back) and features original early Christian mosaics in the apse.
History of Santi Cosma e Damiano
Santi Cosma e Damiano was the first church to be founded in the Forum. In 527, Pope Felix IV (526-30) converted a rectangular apsed hall in the Forum of Peace into a church by the simple addition of an apse mosaic (which survives) and some church furnishings.
Although Christianity had been the official religion of the empire since the late 4th century, the placement of a church in the Imperial Forum marked a turning point: the power and wealth of the Church had finally reached a point that it was able to take over what had been the center of pagan worship in ancient Rome.
The rectangular hall that became the church dates from the 4th century. The original function of the hall is unclear; it is thought to have been either an important library or the audience hall of the city prefect. The hall was attached to a round temple that has been identified as the Temple of Jupiter Stator, which has been dated to the 3rd century BC.
The new church was dedicated to the saints Cosmas and Damian, two 3rd-century eastern martyrs who were twin brothers and physicians.
Their cult spread rapidly from the 5th century onwards, and it came to be believed that if a sick person slept in the church they would receive a dream that would lead to a cure (much like an Asklepeion in classical Greek religion).
In the late 8th century, Pope Hadrian I restored Santi Cosma e Damiano and added a diaconia (charitable foundation) to it. He provided land, vineyards and serfs "to provide food and frequent baths for the poor and pilgrims."
In 1512, the church was given to the Franciscan Tertiaries; images of Franciscan saints were added in the 17th century. Today, the church is served by Friars of the Regular Third Order of St. Francis.
In 1632, major rebuilding works took place under Pope Urban VII. The floor had to be raised seven meters because water was seeping in from the surrounding soil, which meant that the far ends of the mosaics in the original apse were lost. This created an upper church and lower church; the latter is now the crypt.
What to See at Santi Cosma e Damiano
The church is entered through an adjacent convent on Via dei Fori Imperiali, a major road running alongside the Imperial Forum and ending at the Colosseum. The side walls of the basilica are original from the 4th-century Roman hall, but they are not visible due to the convent buildings that surround them.
From the Forum, you can see the round Temple of Jupiter Stator (3rd-century BC) with its original bronze doors (early 300s AD). The original key still turns in the door, but visitors may not enter the temple. Its excavated interior can, however, be clearly viewed from a full-length glass wallin the church above.
The 6th century apse mosaic in the Byzantine style is original and justly famous. It is illuminated by a coin-operated light in the left aisle. It provided inspiration for many later mosaics. It depicts the Parousia or Second Coming of Christ "on the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:30). The manner in which Christ is depicted is Roman rather than Byzantine, despite the obvious Byzantine style of the work as a whole.
The mosaic features Christ standing on red clouds (representing the dawn), dressed in golden robes labeled with the monogram I. He holds the scroll of the Law in his left hand.
On Christ's right (our left), St. Paul introduces the other twin brother, who is holding a martyr's crown. On the far left is Pope Felix IV (526-30), who offers Christ a model of the church he founded. Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) later painted over Felix the image of Gregory the Great (590-604), but the original Felix was reconstructed in the 17th century.
On Christ's left (our right) is St. Peter, who is introducing Cosmas or Damian (the two are depicted identical after the tradition that they were twins). The latter is holding a martyr's crown and has a red surgeon's box over his arm. On the far right is St. Theodore, also carrying a martyr's crown.
The figures stand on golden water flowers, symbolizing the River Jordan (which is labeled with the inscription IORDANES). On each side is a palm tree, and on the left side there is also a phoenix, a symbol of resurrection.
Below this is the Lamb of God with a silver halo, surrounded by 12 sheep symbolizing the apostles. The Lamb stands on a hill with Bethlehem on the right and Jerusalem on the left, and the four rivers of Paradise (labeled GION, PISON, TIGRIS, EVFRATA) flow down from it.
Below the sheep is the dedicatory inscription:
The triumphal arch mosaic is also 6th century, but may have been completed in the time of Pope Sergius I (692-701). Its symbolic images are based on chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Revelation and cover two of the original windows of the 4th-century Roman hall. In the center, the Lamb of God lies on a jewelled throne, beneath a cross and above a scroll with seven seals.
The Lamb is flanked by seven jewelled candlesticks (representing the seven spirits of God) and four angels. On the left is the winged man symbolising Matthew and on the right is the eagle of John the Evangelist. On the bottom sides of the arch are the arms of some of the 24 Elders carrying crowns; the full-length figures and other two evangelists were lost during the 17th-century renovation.
Below the mosaic is a series of Franciscan saints, men on the left and women on the right. They were added c. 1635 after the major renovation. A curiosity is St Bridget of Sweden, who is depicted as a Franciscan. This was caused by a misunderstanding in which her widow's costume was taken for a Franciscan habit. There are a number of paintings decorating the rest of the church, including a fine 13th-century fresco. The ceiling was painted in 1632 by Marco Montagna.
The high altar by Domenico Castelli, from c.1637, is a good example of Baroque art. It enshrines a 12th-century Byzantine icon of the Madonna. The relicsof Cosmas and Damian are preserved in the crypt downstairs. The sacristy contains the reliquary of St. Matthew and a precious chalice. In a room in the adjacent convent is the famous Neopolitan Crib, a beautiful 18th-century nativity scene with exquisitely carved statuettes.
Quick Facts on Santi Cosma e Damiano
|Names:||Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian · Chiesa dei Santi Cosma e Damiano · Santi Cosma e Damiano · SS Cosma e Damiano|
|Categories:||churches; World Heritage Sites|
|Dedication:||St. Cosmas; St. Damian|
|Dates:||527; 8th C; 1632|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.892051° N, 12.487464° E|
|Address:||Via dei Fori Imperiali|
|Phone:||+39 6 699 1540|
|Hours:||Daily 8-1, 3-5|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Santi Cosma e Damiano|
- Personal visit (July 2006).
- Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide (Sussex Academic Press, 2001).
- Santi Cosma e Damiano - Churches of Rome (dated 2000, accessed 2006)
- Chiesa dei Santi Cosma e Damiano - Rome City (Italian only)
- Franciscan Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian - The Franciscans
- Photos of Santi Cosma e Damiano - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Santi Cosma e Damiano, Rome
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