03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas Art & Humanities

Pestilence & Prayer: Vita of Sts. Cosmas & Damian (11)

June 8, 2020

See previous thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: St. Christopher in Art (10)

Sts. Cosmas and Damian were successful brother-physicians and thus they have an apparent connection to disease, pestilence, and healing. The brothers were part of a group called the anargyroi*, a word that means the “silver-less ones.” They are characterized by upholding strict principles regarding compensation: they refuse to accept any form of payment or reward for their healing services. Their guideline of free service was so strict that lifelong partners fell out of favor if one suspected the other of violating this principle. According to The Golden Legend, a lady named Palladia went to the twin-doctors and they restored her to perfect health. She offered a little gift, which they refused, but she begged them to take it, swearing solemn oaths. Damian eventually accepted the gift because he did not want to disrespect to the Lord but when Cosmas found out he was furious. God came to Cosmas in a dream and told him to forgive his brother and so they continued working together.

With time, the proconsul Lysias heard of their medical success through the Christian faith and summoned them to his court to sacrifice to his idols. When they refused he had them tortured. Lysias saw that it had no effect on them and he became enraged. According to The Golden Legend:

[He] had the three other brothers brought out of prison and made them stand by the cross while four of his soldiers shot arrows at Cosmas and Damian. But the arrows doubled back and wounded many in the crowd, while the holy martyrs were not even touched. Thwarted at every turn, Lysias at his wit’s end, and next morning had all five brothers beheaded.

In art, Sts. Cosmas and Damian are often depicted in the garb of a physician: “in a scarlet gown, furred well” with an ointment box, a lancet or other contemporary surgical equipment. In the Church Santi Cosma e Damiano, there is a mosaic of important influence that depicts the brothers. The mosaic depicts a passage in the New Testament that describes Christ’s Second Coming. Sts. Cosmas and Damian are on either side of Christ, presented by Sts. Paul and Peter. They are dressed in matching yellow tunics and purple cloaks, with identical bearded faces. The martyr with St. Peter, on Christ’s left, holds a crown and surgeon box and on Christ’s right stands St. Paul, who introduces the other brother who also carries a martyr’s crown. Below the mosaic there is an inscription, part of which reads:

“MARTYRIBUS MEDICIS POPVLO SPES CERTA SALVTIS VENIT ET EX SACRO CREVIT HONORE LOCUS,” translated as: “To the people a sure hope of salvation comes from the martyrs who heal their ills, and the temple before named as sacred has increased in honor.”

One visual depiction of their torment by arrows is by Fra Angelico, The Crucifixion of Saints Cosmas and Damian. The altarpiece titled Altarpiece of Cosmas and Damian, depicts the lives of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, and although the panel with their crucifixion is a small piece, it is a good depiction of their failed martyrdom by arrows. The image shows Cosmas and Damian nailed to crosses as their three brothers stand below them and all five are pelted with arrows that turn in the other direction before they reach their intended targets. Some of the archers turn to escape the onslaught, and others fall to the ground dead. The proconsul Lysias is at the bottom right-hand corner in rich garments, he turns his face away from the failed execution. Similarly to St. Sebastian’s martyrdom, the brothers also act as “living lightning rods” as described by Louise Marshall. The emphasis is on Cosmas and Damian’s ability to draw the arrows from humanity and survive. This action echo’s St Sebastian’s and also provides hope to those suffering from the plague.

In addition to images of their martyrdom, Sts. Cosmas and Damian are also depicted with “first-tier” plague saints. Titian’s altarpiece, Saint Mark enthroned with Saints Cosmas and Damian, Roch and Sebastian, is an example of the association Medieval and Renaissance peoples had of the brothers with the plague. Sts. Cosmas and Damian stand to St. Mark’s right, while Sts. Roch and Sebastian stand to the saint’s left. According to Clara Clement in Saints in Art, this picture was created to commemorate a plague in Venice, and it supports the statement that Cosmas and Damian are “akin to the offices of Sts. Sebastian and Roch.”

The brother-physicians halted the epidemic with their experience in healing expressed in their Vita and a cult developed early on in connection to their medical powers. Their failed martyrdom with arrows in their Vita also provides an iconographic connection to plague arrows. As evident in James Hall’s description of the saints in Dictionary of Subjects and Saints in Art their primary role was as plague saints:

Their principle role was that of protectors against sickness, the plague in particular, they therefore appear most often in votive paintings of thanksgiving, standing before the Virgin. They may be grouped with Roch and Sebastian who likewise were invoked against disease.

Next thesis blog post: 

*The anargyroi were inspired by the instructions of Christ in Matthew 10:1, 5-8: “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely you have received, freely give.”

Resources:

  1. Brady, Dimitri. “Eastern Christian Hagiographical Traditions: Eastern Orthodox.” In The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity. Edited by Ken Parry, 420-432. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
  2. Clement, Clara Eskine. Saints in Art. New York: Snova, Nova Science Publishers, 2004.
  3. Webb, Matilda. The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2001.
  4. Marshall, Louise. “Manipulating the Sacred: Image and Plague in Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 3 (Autumn, 1994).
  5. Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 2008.
  6. Voragine, Jacobus de. The Golden Legend. Translated by Christopher Stace. London: Penguin, 1998.

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