In my last post I wrote about the Agioi Anargyroi – the Holy Unmercenaries – saints and martyrs who performed charitable works, usually as physicians, but who accepted no payment for their services. This antagonised the local pagans, who persecuted them and finally executed them – but not before extraordinary miracles were witnessed, such as surviving gruesome tortures and thwarted attempts to despatch them. The last members of this cohort are my favourites, not least because one of them provides the name for one of the spookiest characters ever to appear on film, in the ‘Omen’ series – the twin brother physician-saints, Cosmas and Damian, who died c. 287:
STS. COSMAS and DAMIAN were brothers,
and born in Arabia, but studied the sciences in Syria, and became eminent for their skill in physic. Being Christians, and full of that holy temper of charity in which the spirit of our divine religion consists,
they practised their profession with great application and wonderful success, but never took any fee. They were loved and respected by the people on account of the good offices received from their charity, and for their zeal for the Christian faith, which they took every opportunity to propagate. When the persecution of Diocletian began to rage, it was impossible for persons of so distinguished a character to lie concealed. They were therefore apprehended by the order of Lysias, Governor of Cilicia, and after various torments were bound hand and foot and thrown into the sea. (From the online version of Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.  entry for Sept. 27, their feast day or ‘dies natalis’ – day of rebirth into heaven – in the Roman calendar until 1969, when it was moved to the 26th. The whole group is commemorated in the Eastern church in the Synaxis of the Unmercenary Physicians on the first Sunday in November. It celebrates three pairs of saints with this name, with feast days on 1 July, 17 October and 1 November.)
A longer version of their legend full of supernatural wonders (eg when the pagans try to stone the brothers to death, the stones recoil and hit the throwers) and with a typically fanciful etymology of their names (more allegorical and edifying than linguistically accurate) is found in the hugely popular hagiographical compilation Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine, c. 1260. This legendary survives in nearly 1000 MSS and was soon translated into most European languages; one of Caxton’s first printed books was an English version, ‘The Golden Legend’, of 1483. The 1900 translation by F.S. Ellis can be consulted here.
The legends of Cosmas and Damian (eg by Voragine) include claims that their benevolence even extended to their treating sick animals, as well as people such as this woman:
Once, the saints were summoned to a grievously ill woman named Palladia, whom all the doctors had refused to treat because of her seemingly hopeless condition. Through faith and through the fervent prayer of the holy brothers, the Lord healed the deadly disease and Palladia got up from her bed perfectly healthy and giving praise to God. In gratitude for being healed and wishing to give them a small gift, Palladia went quietly to Damian. She presented him with three eggs and said, “Take this small gift in the Name of the Holy Life-Creating Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Hearing the Name of the Holy Trinity, the unmercenary one did not dare to refuse.
When St Cosmas learned what had happened, became very sad, for he thought that his brother had broken their strict vow. On his deathbed he gave instructions that his brother should not be buried beside him. St Damian also died shortly afterward, and everyone wondered where St Damian’s grave should be. But through the will of God a miracle occurred. A camel, which the saints had treated for its wildness, spoke with a human voice saying that they should have no doubts about whether to place Damian beside Cosmas, because Damian did not accept the eggs from the woman as payment, but out of respect for the Name of God. The venerable relics of the holy brothers were buried together at Thereman (Mesopotamia). [From the Orthodox Church in America website, entry for Cosmas, possibly one of the other, synonymous physician saints – hagiography isn’t always a precise science.)
Another popular feature in the miraculous stories recounting the twins’ thaumaturgical powers is this one:
Felix, the eighth pope after S. Gregory, did do make a noble church at Rome of the saints Cosmo and Damian, and there was a man which served devoutly the holy martyrs in that church, who a canker had consumed all his thigh. And as he slept, the holy martyrs Cosmo and Damian, appeared to him their devout servant, bringing with them an instrument and ointment of whom that one said to that other: Where shall we have flesh when we have cut away the rotten flesh to fill the void place? Then that other said to him: There is an Ethiopian that this day is buried in the churchyard of S. Peter ad Vincula, which is yet fresh, let us bear this thither, and take we out of that morian’s flesh and fill this place withal. And so they fetched the thigh of the sick man and so changed that one for that
other. And when the sick man awoke and felt no pain, he put forth his hand and felt his leg without hurt, and then took a candle, and saw well that it was not his thigh, but that it was another. And when he was well come to himself, he sprang out of his bed for joy, and recounted to all the people how it was happed to him, and that which he had seen in his sleep, and how he was healed. And they sent hastily to the tomb of the dead man, and found the thigh of him cut off, and that other thigh in the tomb instead of his. (From the Ellis edition of ‘The Golden Legend’ online, cited above.)
Their brothers Anthimus, Leontius, and Euprepius are reputed to have been martyred with them. The twins’ relics were
translated to the city of Cyrrhus in Syria, and a number of miracles were said to have been effected by them. The emperor Justinian I (527-65) was cured of illness through the intercession of these saints, and in gratitude he restored the city, dedicated it in their name, and re-translated their relics to Constantinople. There he built a sumptuous church also in their name.
The veneration of these important Unmercenaries is also attested by the rededication of the Bibliotheca Pacis in Rome as the basilica Santi Cosma i Damiano by Pope Felix IV (526-30). The sixth-century frescos in this church survive today.
Skulls reputed to be those of Cosmas and Damian were translated in the tenth century from Rome to sites in Germany and subsequently in 1581 to a convent of Nuns of St Clare in Madrid. In 1381 the bishop of Bremen is said to have miraculously rediscovered their skulls – a duplication not unprecedented in the cults of relics of saints (the medieval Catholic church provided convenient explanations for such anomalies), and an elaborate shrine to house them was constructed in 1420. It’s now on display in Munich. Yet another pair of skulls said to have been found in the fifteenth century was enshrined in Vienna cathedral.
Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder commissioned the Dominican friar Fra Angelico to paint an altarpiece for the church and monastery of San Marco, which was rededicated to Cosmas and Damian, as well as to St Mark; it was completed some time between 1438-43. The central panel is a portrait of the Virgin and child surrounded by saints; Cosmas kneels in the foreground left looking out at the viewer, and is said to be a likeness of Cosimo himself, while Damian kneels alongside him to the right. There were nine predella panels
depicting scenes from the twin saints’ legend; two of them are still in what is now the San Marco Museum, the others are in the Louvre and elsewhere. Some are incorporated into this blogpost.
There are many churches dedicated to Cosmas and Damian across the world, but only five in England:
Blean , church of St Cosmus [sic] and St Damian, and Challock, both in Kent, probably dedicated through association with the saints’ popularity at nearby Canterbury Cathedral, which in the fourteenth century possessed a feretory containing relics of the twins;
Sherrington, Wiltshire, Church of St Cosmo [sic] and St Damian;
Their cult never seemed to catch on in England, though there were relics in the cathedrals of Canterbury (noted above), Salisbury and elsewhere. For a full scholarly account of the English cult and the five churches above, with reference to iconographical and other representations, see the account here by Leslie G. Matthews. He points out, for example, that they appear in several gilds’ and associations’ coats of arms: Barbers, Surgeons, etc. When thirteen societies amalgamated into the Royal Society of Medicine in 1907, its coat of arms depicted the two saints as supporters – the physician Cosmas (dexter) holding an albarello (an apothecary’s medicine jar), and the surgeon Damian (sinister) holding a surgical instrument (image at the start of this post).
In the church I visited in SE Cyprus dedicated to the Agioi Anargyroi, and which inspired these two blogposts, I neglected to take any pictures of the icons of the saints, so I’ll have to rely on the online examples reproduced here, all in the public domain via WikiCommons except for the coat of arms, from the RSM website.