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Saint of the week

The twin physicians who healed the sick for free

Among their miraculous exploits, Kosmas and Damianos (September 26) grafted the leg from a recently dead Ethiopian on to another patient’s body

By on Friday, 20 September 2013

A detail from an icon depicting the third-century physician twins

A detail from an icon depicting the third-century physician twins

Kosmas and Damianos, as they are also sometimes called, were third-century Christian martyrs from what is now Turkey whose popularity grew in the later Roman and Byzantine period.
The twin physicians healed the sick in Ayas, then in the Roman province of Syria, but refused to accept payment, attracting the nickname “Unmercenary”.

Among their miraculous exploits, they grafted the leg from a recently dead Ethiopian on to another patient’s body, an incident portrayed in many portraits of the twins (a feat not ordinarily possible, even with 21st-century technology).

When the Diocletianic persecution began in 303 they were arrested and tortured, then hanged on a cross, stoned and shot with arrows, before finally being beheaded. Their three younger brothers, Anthimus, Leontius and Euprepius, were also murdered.

Their cult grew throughout the fourth century, with churches dedicated to the twins in Egypt, Jerusalem and modern-day Iraq.

Their relics were buried in Cyrrus, Syria, and Emperor Justinian built a church there in their honour. Justinian attributed his recovery from serious illness to the twins and therefore built another church in his capital, Constantinople. Their popularity spread thanks to influence of Pope Felix IV (526-530), who re-dedicated the Library of Peace as a Basilica of Ss Cosmas and Damian. Although the church is rebuilt, the frescos still survive.

Although little is known of their actual life, their cult survived whereas many others of the period were forgotten (also sharing this feast day are St Vigilius, St Callistratus and St Senator, all from the same period). The twins are invoked in the Canon of the Mass, which is why their names remain familiar to contemporary Catholics.
The skulls of Cosmas and Damian are reputedly buried at the convent of the Clares in Madrid, where they have been since 1581 when Maria, daughter of Emperor of Charles V, brought them over from Germany. But a rival pair of skulls remains in Bremen. They came into the possession of the kings of Bavaria and throughout much of the 20th century were on display in the city, before buried in the crypt in 1994. There is a third pair of skulls in St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, while a church in Venice also claims to have some relics.

The twins are the patron saints of doctors and surgeons, and are often depicted holding medical equipment of signs. They are frequently represented
in the logos of medical organisations, including the coat of arms of the British Dental Association.

They are also regarded as patrons of children in Brazil and their feast day is commemorated in that country by giving children bags of sweets with the saints’ images on them. Brazil’s oldest church, built in 1535 in Igarassu, is dedicated to them.

Although their feast day was moved from September 27 to September 26 in 1969 traditionalist Catholics still mark it a day later.