“I happened to be getting fed up with the remains of the Roman Empire, and wandered into one of the churches [the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian] by the Forum, where there was a mosaic above the altar. I glanced at it, I looked back, and I could not go away from it for a long time, it held me there, fascinated by its design and its mystery and its tremendous seriousness and its simplicity.” – Thomas Merton
I suppose that I was most interested in seeing the art in the Church of SS Cosmos and Damian because of the mention that Merton makes of it during the pilgrimage (and some say “conversion”) he made to Rome when he was 18 years old.
The church itself is part of the Forum area and was originally a Roman structure, perhaps a library. It was rebuilt as a church in the 6th century.
Cosmos and Damian were twin brothers and physicians who worked without pay – “unmercenary physicians”. They were born in what is today’s Turkey and died as martyrs in Rome about CE 284. Saints Cosmos and Damian are the patron saints of doctors and surgeons.
This church and its mosaic icon played an important role in the life of Thomas Merton. Here is an extract from his unpublished autobiographical novel, “Labyrinth”:
“I don’t know what had happened in the two-year interval [since his first visit to Rome in 1931] to change my taste, but now I suddenly began to find out about Byzantine mosaics and frescoes; things that before I scarcely looked at, for being clumsy and ugly and brutally stupid, suddenly revealed themselves to be full of sophistication of technique [yet] with innocence of feeling. These things had a depth and […] subtlety and wisdom in them that I had never seen anywhere: something the Roman copies of Greek statues did not allow you even to imagine possible: but something, nevertheless, that was in archaic Greek sculpture, and in Etruscan sculpture, and, if you thought about it, in all good art: the only thing was, in a lot of things you did not realise this intellectual quality existed if you were only interested, as I had been, in the way the work imitated the shape of a physical thing.
“If I had vaguely recognised some sophistication in the formal aspect of archaic Greek sculpture, here, in Byzantine art was something more than that: something deeper than sophistication; a kind of vision, a kind of wisdom. This was something I found out quite suddenly. I happened to be getting fed up with the remains of the Roman Empire, and wandered into one of the churches [the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian] by the Forum, where there was a mosaic above the altar. I glanced at it, I looked back, and I could not go away from it for a long time, it held me there, fascinated by its design and its mystery and its tremendous seriousness and its simplicity.
“Now, indeed, these Byzantine mosaics had given me some kind of a clue as to what it was that stood opposed to the things I feared. And it obviously wasn’t any particular age, or any other time, or anything that could be so easily classified. It was something more mysterious and more powerful, and I was not quite sure what it was. But I knew, now, that if I wanted to see it, I could go and hunt for it in these old churches of the Dark Ages: and there, in mosaics, in statues, in thrones and stone altars, I could see quite plainly something that I was looking for. I didn’t know what it was: it was not a material thing, it was an intellectual and spiritual quality these ancient artists had given to their works. But it was not something that could not be seen, and not something you had to accept blindly: for it was there, you could see it. If I had known it I suppose I was looking all the while at a kind of miracle.
“Soon I explored every basilica I could find….”