Roman Pilgrimage presents a stations pilgrimage tour of the Eternal City during the Lenten season, discussing the faith-based practices of today's pilgrims while offering commentaries on relevant liturgies, art and architecture.
Rome loves twins: it worshipped twin gods; it was founded by twin brothers; the seeds of its Christian rebirth were planted by twin martyrs. In the Basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, the ancient Roman fascination with twinning was assimilated into the worship and art of Christian Rome.
The basilica was built along the Via Sacra, the principal street of ancient Rome and an avenue flanked by some of antiquity's most prestigious buildings, including the Temple to Peace and a medical library built by Vespasian. A Christian church on this site was a statement.
Slightly to the left of the Palatine Hill, in the heart of the Forum, stood one of Rome's oldest temples, dedicated in 484 B.C. to Castor and Pollux, twin deities who personified the pagan conviction that men could become gods. When the Ostrogoth king Theodoric gave the vestibule of the temple and one of its halls to Pope Felix IV in 526, Christian Rome dedicated the space to another set of twins: the brother-martyrs Cosmas and Damian, killed by Diocletian for refusing to believe in men-turned-gods while proclaiming their belief in God-made-man. A small, round, and dark vestibule led into a basilica flooded with light by clerestory windows, the contrast aptly expressing the enlightenment of Christian conversion. The relics of the two martyrs were kept in the altar that still stands in the old church's apse.
Owing to flooding, the church's floor had become a marsh by the seventeenth century. In 1632, Pope Urban VIII undertook a massive restoration that lifted the floor level twenty feet higher than the original. Side chapels and the elegant wooden roof, painted by Marco Tullio Montagna and depicting Sts. Cosmas and Damian in Glory, were added. The side chapels were decorated by major figures: Giovanni Baglione, archrival of Caravaggio, painted the Chapel of the Madonna; Il Spadarino did the remarkably modern-looking canvas of St. Anthony of Padua; and Cavaliere D'Arpino painted the delicate Chapel of St. Barbara.
The remarkable apse mosaic is the basilica's oldest extant decoration. Jesus glows in the center against a lapis night sky surrounded by stripes of red and blue that soon evolve into cherubim and seraphim. A phoenix, symbol of the Resurrection, is at Christ's right as he floats between heaven and earth. Peter and Paul, once imprisoned nearby, appear as heavenly senators in their Roman togas as they greet Cosmas and Damian, who are wearing the cloaks and tunics of travelers, symbolic of the origin of devotion to the physician-martyrs in the East. Pope Felix offers a model of the basilica, while St. Theodore offers his martyr's crown. This striking composition was the last great expression of artistic naturalism until the eleventh century: the grass and stones have volume; the feet of the saints cast shadows.
The exquisite inlaid wooden choir was given to the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular, who have cared for the church since 1512, and is decorated with images of holy members of the Third Order, including St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Louis of France.
Essay by Elizabeth Lev. From Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches by George Weigel, with Elizabeth Lev and Stephen Weigel. Copyright 2013 by George Weigel. Excerpted by permission of Basic Books.