The station churches of Rome form part of a traditional 4th century custom that honoured the Christian martyrs of Rome and helped to strengthen the early Christian community of the city. This Lent, a small insight into the history of some of the station churches will mark our progress towards the celebration of Easter.
Located on a site rich in historical significance, the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian, is just off the Via dei Fori Imperali, the road linking the Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum This site is recorded as being a place of worship since the beginning of the first millennium, around 75 AD. It is also the home of the Third Order of St Francis.
The story of Saints Cosmas and Damian is shrouded in mystery, however it is widely held that the pair were in fact brothers, and medical professionals. They become known to the Roman authorities because of their practise of healing and tending to those who suffered persecution for their faith. During the Diocletian period, the brothers were martyred in Aegea, at that time part of Roman Syria, nowadays, Turkey. They were tried and after the verdict they were decapitated. The relics of the brother saints were brought to Rome during the papacy of St. Gregory the Great (590-604).
Parts of the current church have been dated to the time of Emperor Vespasian, built between the years 69 and 79 A.D. This original building was the first basilica built on this site, however, that was intended for secular use.
Pope Felix IV (526-530) commissioned some structural work to be done which saw surrounding buildings brought within the walls of the original basilica. The circular building which looks onto the Roman Forum was once of those included in these changes. It was also at this time that the mosaics, which still survive today, were installed. More work on the church followed, over 150 years later, when Adrian I used the church as a deaconry during his reign in the latter part of the 8th century. The building then survived undisturbed until the papacy of Clement VIII who, after hearing of the rediscovery of the relics of the brother saints, ordered the creation of side chapels – a task completed by 1602.
The biggest change came about when the current floor was installed in 1632, raising the floor level by 7 metres and cutting the original building in half. This change does however allow a closer inspection of the beautiful apse mosaic which shows Christ in the centre, flanked by St Peter and Paul presenting the martyred brothers, Cosmas and Damian. At the edges of the Mosaic are, on the left hand side as you view it from the pews, Pope Felix IV, as the church’s founder, holding a model of the church, and on the right hand side, St. Theodore, who was also martyred during the Diocletian period.