Saints Cosmas and Damian: The Iconography

In Aegea the natal day Not their birthday but the day they died and were "born again" into Heaven of the martyr saints Cosmas and Damian, brothers. During the persecution of Diocletian, with the help of God they withstood many torments – chains, prison, torture by water and by fire, crucifixion, stones, and arrows. After all this they were beheaded. Three of their brothers are also reported to have suffered with them, that is, Anthimus, Leontius, and Euprepius.– Roman Martyrology for September 7

According to medieval legends Saints Cosmas and Damian were twin physicians from Syria who effected many cures and would not accept fees. In portraits they carry instruments of their profession, such as the urinal a glass vessel used to examine a patient's urine and ointment jar in the picture at right. In the Golden Legend they come from Heaven in later times to help a devotee whose leg was wasting away with cancer. They bring an ointment jar and a scalpel to operate on the man, so some portraits show them with those two objects.

NARRATIVE IMAGES

Because they and their three brothers would not sacrifice to idols, the proconsul Lysias had them tortured and cast into the sea. They survived, so he had them burned in a great fire. When that failed he had them mounted on crucifixes and ordered the people of the city to cast stones and shoot them with arrows. But the arrows and stones reversed course and wounded those who had aimed them, as illustrated in the third picture at right. Finally Lysias had all five brothers beheaded. The story is pictured, along with two of their miracles, in eight predella panels in Fra Angelico's San Marco Altarpiece.

PORTRAITS

The three brothers of Cosmas and Damian usually appear in narrative images, but not in portraits. In early mosaics the two saints are either identified by labels (example) or distinguished only by their martyrs' crowns (example). Because they were twins, medieval portraits often put them in similar or identical garments, as in the second picture at right. It was conventional to picture a physician wearing some sort of soft, close-fitting hat, as in the first two pictures at right, so that will also help identify these saints. (The chaperon "A round headdress of stuffed cloth with wide cloth streamers that fall from the crown or are draped around it, worn in the 15th century" – Dictionary.com on the right in the first picture is less common.)

DATES

  • Died in 287, according to the Golden Legend. Farmer (104) and Butler (III, 659) list them as "date unknown."
  • The traditional date in the Latin Church is September 27, now changed to the 26th. In the East their feast is on July 1 or November 1.

NAMES

  • The three brothers of Cosmas and Damian are Anthimus, Leontius, and Euprepius.

HAGIOGRAPHY

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-21, 2018-02-05.

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Miniature in the Book of Hours of Anne de Bretagne, 1503-1508 (See the description page)


Ceiling of the Church of SS. Cosmas and Damian: Their ascent to Heaven (See the description page)


Tintoretto, The Crucifixion of Saints Cosmas and Damian (See the description page)

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