Fra Angelico, The Cosmas and Damian Predella, 1438-40

For an altarpiece in Florence Fra Angelico painted a predella with eight panels on the lives of Saints Cosmas and Damian. The altarpiece was dismantled in the 17th century and seven of the panels ended up in various museums. Shown below are the three panels now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Cosmas, Damian, and their Brothers Before Lysias
As in the legends, Lysias sits in judgment "before the tribunal" in Aegae, Asia Minor. He gestures toward the idol on the far right, demanding that the brothers worship it. The inclusion in the painting of a naturalistic idol that looks like a human reflects the brothers' rejoinder in one of the legends: "Your gods are empty, and we disagree with your image of them [simulacrum tuum]: they are not men but demons" (Acta Sanctorum, September vol. 7, 469).

The two larger figures on the left are Cosmas and Damian. The others are their brothers, Anthimus, Leontius, and Euprepius. The legends do not say that one of the brothers was a minor, but Fra Angelico apparently deduced that Euprepius, the last one listed, would be the youngest.

The brothers' hats are not at all like the soft, floppy headpieces worn by medieval physicians, nor do they resemble the hats in other images of these saints. They may reflect the "brimless scarlet cap" that young men favored at this time in Florence, where the artist was living at the time of this painting ("1400-1500 in European Fashion," retrieved 2018-02-01).
Lysias is Freed of Demons
In the background Lysias's men weigh down the saints with chains and cast them into the sea. But then an angel comes and undoes the chains so that they float to the shore unharmed.

In the foreground, this marvel has led Lysias to believe that Cosmas and Damian are masters of the dark arts, and he asks them to teach him what they know. At that, two demons enter him, "and they kept beating him on the cheeks for an hour. Then the prefect exclaimed, 'I beg you, servants of God, to pray for me that I be freed from this pain.' The saints prayed for him, and the demons immediately fled" (Acta Sanctorum, September vol. 7, 471-72). But then Lysias resolves to keep trying to make the saints worship idols.

In the first picture Lysias sits "before the tribunal," but in this one he is in front of an enclosed garden. The symbolism, if any, is obscure. Enclosed gardens usually refer to the Virgin Mary, by way of Canticle 4:12, "My spouse is a garden enclosed."
Cosmas and Damian are Crucified and Stoned
In the Golden Legend Lysias orders Cosmas and Damian crucified and stoned, but the stones reverse course and wound the people throwing them. So Lysias orders that the three brothers be placed before the crosses and that all five be shot with arrows. But the arrows, too, reverse their course and hit the archers. On the left, Lysias ponders what to do next.

The failed crucifixion was preceded by an attempt to burn the brothers in a great fire. This is the subject of a panel from the predella that is now in the National Gallery of Ireland. After the failed crucifixion, Lysias orders the brothers beheaded. This panel is in the Louvre and can be seen at this page on Wikimedia Commons. The panel for the burial of the brothers is still in Florence, in the Museo di San Marco.

Before their arrest the two brothers were famous for their cures of the sick. The Museo di San Marco has one of the panels picturing their cures, and Washington's National Gallery has another with Damian's cure of Palladia and his unfortunate decision to accept payment from her.

Full-resolution copies of the above:

  1. The Brothers Before Lysias
  2. The Exorcism
  3. The Failed Crucifixion

More of SS. Cosmas and Damian

Photographed at the Alte Pinakothek by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.