Sunday, 2 March 2008


The 4th Sunday of Lent: we are half way through Lent and we have barely dented March. There is another list of fine churches to visit in the coming week for the station Masses.

On Thursday we went to the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano. Fr Avram has a great picture of the church on his blog. It's a marvellous place: the deep blue of the apse mosaic makes a deep impression and the whole piece is imbued with a sense that it is impervious to time - so much so that, according to one of the priests there, visitors often go around the church and ask the clergy to show them the ancient mosaic.

And ancient it is. The building had been a library, the famous Bibliotheca Pacis, built by the Emperor Vespasian about 75AD: here many of Rome's spoils of war could be seen on display and it was to here, according to Josephus, that the treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem were brought in triumph - including the Menorah whose image can be seen even now on the nearby Arch of Titus. We often think of the Romans as agents of preservation in Antiquity, a force of great culture and civilisation but they were more often than not agents of destruction, crushing, destroying anihilating any city that opposed them, caring not for the beauty that was erased but determined to exact a punishment that would be total and perennial - hence Carthage, Corinth, and Jerusalem. Anyway, the first library was destroyed by a fire in 191 and subsequently restored/rebuilt by Septimius Severus. Added to it was the temple of Romulus built by the Emperor Maxentius in honour of his son Valerius Romulus who died in 309 and was subsequently declared a god. You can see the temple in the picture below which I took in October: look at the centre of the picture; ignore the obvious looking temple slightly to the left; the temple of Romulus is that roundish or hexagonal shaped building with what looks like a mini cupola on top; it is attached to the church of Ss Cosmas and Damian behind - the one with the arch windows.

In 527 Pope Felix IV converted the library and temple into a church dedicated to the two physician martyrs, twin brothers, who were killed during the persecution of Diocletian in Cilicia. The mosaic dates from 527 - only the images of Pope Felix himself and of 3 sheep below him were heavily restored after an earthquake damaged them. It is also damaged by a restoration of the 17th century: this had to solve the problem of dampness and disease and so a floor was place at the present level; the crypt below was the original level of the church and it is there you can find the spot to which the remains of the two saints were transferred. Despite all this, the mosaic is a great favourite and truly remarkable. This picture gives an impression of the look of the church (I have to improve my photographic skills!). You can just about make out the triumphal arch which is the same age as the mosaic: it is this which is partially covered by the new but necessary walls built around 1632.

The Christ in the mosaic is the Christ of the Parousia, coming in glory, to judge the living and the dead; the saints on either side welcome him and you can see Pope Felix presenting the church to the Lord (one of the priests at the church says that many think the face on the mosaic of Felix is what remains of the original figure). Notice the phoenix in the top left hand corner on a palm tree: the tree represents victory and the bird is a symbol of the resurrection, of eternal life. Christ is pointing to it and in His other hand He holds a scroll - the Gospel itself, the new Law: if we follow this new Law, Christ is saying, then we will reach the resurrection to new life.

Underneath the ain mosaic the sheep representing the apostles go to great Christ the Lamb in the centre. It is a wonderful image: the four rivers pour out from beneath Him and give life wherever they flow.

Finally, of note also in the church is this rather interesting 8th century Byzantine image of the crucified Christ:

1 comment:

Mountain Butorac said...

Excellent write up on Santi Cosma e Damiano!