Daniel Cochran (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Journal of History and Cultures: (3) 2013
In the year 526 CE, the bishop of Rome, Pope Felix IV, petitioned the Ostrogoth king Theoderic for permission to convert a small complex in the Forum Romanum into a place of worship dedicated to the Saints Cosmas and Damian (fig. 1). The complex consists of two pre-Christian buildings—an apsidal hall in the corner of the Templum Pacis and a small rotunda facing the Via Sacra in the Forum Romanum—that were conjoined in the early-fourth century during the reign of the emperor Maxentius (figs. 2, 4). While Pope Felix IV did very little to alter the exterior of this complex, he installed in the apse of the narrow hall a stunning mosaic that depicts Christ, the apostles Peter and Paul and the patron saints Cosmas and Damian, as well the eastern military saint Theodore and a portrait of Felix IV himself (fig. 3). Although heavily restored in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this apse mosaic remains one of the finest and most historically significant examples of late antique Christian art in Rome. This paper critiques traditional interpretations of this church—its physical location and its apse mosaic—in light of new research that nuances our understanding of the historical context in which it was commissioned.
As the first Christian basilica constructed in the political and religious heart of ancient Rome, the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano and its impressive mosaic have traditionally been understood as emblematic of the demise of the ancient city and its institutions, and the simultaneous, rapid rise of ecclesiastical authority. Scholars have long argued that the urban infrastructure and religious, cultural, and political institutions of ancient Rome began to crumble away in the decades following Constantine’s departure for the Bosporus, allowing the bishop of Rome to step into the void and become the uncontested voice of authority within the city.