The early 6th century mosaic in the apse of the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano is one of the most beautiful in Rome.
In the centre of the mosaic stands Christ. He is dressed in a golden toga, which is embroidered with what looks like the letter iota, the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet, possibly a reference to the Ten Commandments. Christ is thus the Law and the Word made flesh.
Christ is flanked by St Peter and St Paul (patron saints of Rome), who are presenting St Cosmas and St Damian, two Arab physicians (reputedly twins), who were martyred towards the end of the 3rd century. On the far right is St Theodore and on the far left Pope St Felix IV, who holds a model of the church. The latter figure only dates back to the 1630s when this part of the mosaic was reworked.
Directly below Christ, at the bottom of the mosaic, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) stands on a mount, from which flow the four rivers of Paradise. The Agnus Dei is flanked by twelve sheep representing the twelve apostles. At each end of the row of sheep are the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Santi Cosma e Damiano, which was founded in 527 by Pope St Felix IV (r. 526-530), was the first church to incorporate in its structure the remains of ancient Roman buildings, namely the audience hall (or library) of the Templum-Pacis (75 CE) and the Temple of Divus Romulus (309 CE).
In 1632 the church was radically remodelled by Orazio Torriani and Luigi Arrigucci, on the orders of Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-44), whose heraldic bees are prominently displayed throughout the building. Look closely at the apse mosaic, for example, and you will see three bees busy pollinating the small clump of flowers by the pope's left foot.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
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