Detail of the apse mosaic in the Basilica of SS Cosma e Damiano. One of my favorite churches in Rome, the elaborate and exquisite ancient Santi Cosma e Damiano is a minor basilica devoted to Cosmas and Damian, two brothers who were reportedly doctors, martyrs and saints. The history of this church is one of the most fascinating in Rome. It is located in a very prominent location, on the opposite of the Roman Forum in the historic rione Monte. It is actually comprised of two ancient Roman structures, one originating in the forum. For an extended period they formed a single church until the late 19th century when they were again separated. The primary structure is now accessed from an area of what once comprised the Temple of Peace, located on the southeast part of the Imperial Fora, now along the Via dei Fori Imperiali. The entrance was at one point through the circular temple identified as the Temple of Romulus. During the medieval era, however, the forum became a neighborhood resembling the densely packed Subura of ancient Rome, which, along with flooding and possible landslides led to a gradual filling in of the area, resulting in the ground level rising so much in the area of the former Roman forum that it required another entrance.The medieval neighborhood was cleared from the area in the 16th century but until that time the main door and entrance remained below ground level. Several other important churches occupied former Roman structures in the Middle Ages, including Mamertine Prison, which became San Giuseppe dei alegnami, and Sant'Adriano, the former Senate House. The most famous of these is probably the Colosseum itself: it was eventually christened Santa Maria della Pieta al Colosseo.
The church was founded in 527 when Theodoric the Great, the king of the Ostrogoths, agent of the Emperor Justinian I (residing at that point in Constantinople) and his daughter Amalasuntha donated two buildings to the church during the reign of Pope Felix IV. It was reportedly the first Christian church in that particular area, as much of the elite of Rome was still hostile to Christianity. It was not a titular church, but it was intended to be part of the church's charitable activities. The pope united the two buildings and donated the complex to the brothers Cosmas and Damian, but also possibly as a contrast to the ancient cult of Castor and Pollux, worshipped on the other side of the forum. The association with the two doctors was also something of a juxtaposition (and incorporation) of the tradition of the asclepeion, as it was believed in the Middle Ages that an infirm person who slept overnight in the church could experience a vision which would lead to a cure.
The artwork is simply stunning. The decoration spans many periods, but the apse of the new church featured a mosaic representing the parousia of Christ. It was further embellished by Pope Sergius I in the late 7th century and Pope Adrian I in the 8th century. Some have observed that the apse looks somewhat odd, as it appears quite large for the still-ample room, but there was actually a height reduction of the structure in the restoration of the 17th century. On the bright side: one should actually be standing more than 20 feet below it, so it actually provides a much closer view than actually intended. It features Christ at the parousia, or Second Coming at the End Time, set against an orange sky dressed in golden robes. He is holding a rolled scroll of the Torah. The Saints featured include Saints Peter and Paul, who are shown introducing Cosmas and Damian, who were identical twins, depicted with martyrs' crowns. Pope Felix, to the far left, holds a model of the church. This figure was restored in the 17th century, and was thus altered under Pope Gregory XIII, but it was later restored. The other figure featured is another martyr, St. Theodore. The figures all stand in front of the Jordan river flanked by date palms, the left one also featuring a phoenix, the symbol of resurrection. The sheep represent the Lamb of God, accompanied by twelve others representing the Apostles. The lamb appears standing on a hill overlooking Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right, from which flow the Twelve Rivers of Paradise.
In terms of its other features, the choir stalls are set against the curved wall. The frescoes on the walls and ceiling date to the 17th century also, and are mostly anonymous works. This ceiling features a carved and gilded wood, and it is also adorned with the crest of the Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) which features bees. The high altar is Baroque, created by Domenico Castelli in 1637. It features a 12th-century con of Our Lady as the altarpiece. The ceiling fresco was executed by Marco Montagna, and there is a paschal candlestick consisting of a twisted marble column to the right of the altar. There are also seven side chapels. This church is one of the most magnificent in Rome, and as it is located to the most popular area in the heart of the city it is also highly accessible and well worth a visit.