The figures of the physician martyrs Kosmas and Damianos in the southwest panel of the Rotunda mosaics in Thessalonike are among the certainly identifiable figures of the whole mosaic ensemble, and one of the earliest existing depictions of the pair. The two martyrs are depicted wearing purple tunics and paenulae (white for Kosmas, and greenish for Damianos). Their portraits depict them as middle-aged men, with short grey hair and long beard, recalling figures of philosophers. Both the dress and their physiognomic features fit with the identity of these figures as learned men, practising the science of medicine.
The figure of Damianos is accompanied by the inscription:
'(Memory) of Damianos the physician, in the month of September.'
The inscription of Kosmas (if it is him) is not preserved except for the initial letter ‘K’.
Summary and translation: Efthymios Rizos.
Saint NameKosmas and Damianos, brothers, physician martyrs in Syria, ob. 285/287 : S00385
Saint Name in SourceΔαμιανὸς
Type of EvidenceImages and objects - Wall paintings and mosaics
Inscriptions - Formal inscriptions (stone, mosaic, etc.)
Evidence not before380
Evidence not after600
Activity not before380
Activity not after600
Place of Evidence - RegionBalkans including Greece
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcThessalonike
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Thessalonike
Cult activities - Festivals
Cult activities - PlacesCult building - independent (church)
Cult activities - Use of Images
- Public display of an image
SourceThe circular building known as the Rotunda of Saint George was built in the early 4th century as a part of the palatial complex of Thessalonike, probably under the emperor Galerius (Caesar to Diocletian 293-305, Augustus 305-311). Originally built as an imperial mausoleum or pagan temple, the building was later consecrated as a Christian church and functioned as such continuously until the 16th century, when it was converted into a mosque. As a church (the dedication of which is unknown), the Rotunda probably preserved a special association with the palace which was functional at least until the 7th century.
The conversion of the building into a church was accompanied by the decoration of its dome with sumptuous mosaics which survive in a very fragmentary state. Various chronologies have been suggested, ranging from the late 4th to the 6th centuries, the likeliest period probably being 450-550. This is based on iconographic evidence (hairstyle and costume of the figures) and on the results of chemical analysis of the mortars of the mosaic (see the discussion by Fourlas 2012, 177 ff.). The mosaics present no signs of secondary phases or repairs. Their extensive damage seems to be due to natural causes.
The mosaics consisted of a visionary scene (theophany) in three concentric registers. The figure of Christ in glory is depicted in a mandorla in the centre (now mostly lost), carried by four angels. This is followed by a register of saints (apostles, prophets, martyrs, or angels) in procession on a green ground – perhaps depicted according to the apocalyptic theme of the 24 Elders. Only the feet of some of these figures can be seen, and their precise number is unknown.
The only part of the mosaic surviving in good condition is the third and lowest register, which is divided into eight panels (seven of which are preserved) with figures of praying martyrs (19 or 20 in number, of whom 16 are preserved). They are depicted standing with their hands raised in prayer, in front of sumptuous architectural façades, and are accompanied by inscriptions indicating their name, often their profession, and the month of their festival.
The figures of the martyrs are depicted in official late antique dress, by which they are distinguished as soldiers (wearing the military cloak, the chlamys) and civilians (wearing the civilian cloak known as a paenula). Their dress also distinguishes these martyrs from the figures of the upper register, which were depicted wearing tunic and pallium/himation (the philosopher’s habit). Thus a sense of hierarchy is created, which was also accentuated by the greater size of the lost figures of the upper register.
The mosaics depict the physiognomic characteristics of the martyrs with realism and precision, expressing differences in age and social status. Laymen and soldiers are depicted wearing their hair in the mop style, fashionable in the late 5th and 6th centuries, and with their faces clean shaven or with stubble beard. By contrast, Christian clerics and scholars (the two physicians) have short hair and longer beards.
Although some scholars have proposed interpretations of the figures of the lower register as portraits of non-saintly persons, perhaps of donors, most of them can safely or tentatively be identified with martyrs known from the hagiographical sources. None of them seems to be a local saint of the city of Thessalonike, but they represent various parts of the East Roman Empire, including Anatolia, the Balkans, the Levant, and Egypt. No saints from the West can be identified. The 10th century Synaxarium of the Church of Constantinople suggests that many of the saints shown were honoured with chapels and feasts in the capital. The reasons and criteria for the selection of these particular saints in the dome of the Rotunda are unknown. Their placement does not follow any apparent logic. It is possible that the church possessed relics of these martyrs (see Kleinbauer 1972, 55), or that these figures were particularly revered by aristocratic families related to the palace of Thessalonike and its church. According to Ernst Weigand, the mosaic cycle of the Rotunda represents a selective calendar of saints from around the Christian world and the ecclesiastical year (Weigand 1939).
The accompanying inscriptions are of major interest, since they emulate the formulation known from the earliest hagiographic calendars (martyrologia) (on them, see Feissel 1983). These inscriptions very probably echo the calendar observed in the church of Thessalonike, and possibly in the whole of Illyricum, of which Thessalonike was the ecclesiastical capital.
DiscussionAlongside their depiction in the apse mosaic of Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome (dating from AD 526-530, see E###), this mosaic is one of the earliest images of the two popular physician martyrs. The iconography is similar to that of the images of the mosaic in Rome, to the extent that it depicts the two martyrs as bearded middle-aged men, wearing the civilian commoner’s habit (paenula and tunic). Nevertheless, the mosaic of Thessalonike adopts a more sophisticated and individualised physiognomy, distinguishing between the two brothers.
One of the most interesting aspects is the fact that the inscription indicates September as the month of their feast, since this is the earliest dated testimony to the date of their feast in the Greek East. September was the month when the memory of these saints was celebrated in Rome (26 September, according to the Martyrologium Hieronymianum). The Synaxarium of Constantinople mentions several festivals in Constantinople, where they had two major shrines (feasts on 17 October, 29 October, 1 November, 3 December, 9 December, 1 July, and 11 August), but none in September. It is very probable that the popular cult of Kosmas and Damianos had various local feast dates.
On the inscription, see: Feissel 1983, 105-106.
BibliographyBakirtzis, C., “Rotunda,” in: C. Bakirtzis (ed.), Mosaics of Thessaloniki : 4th to 14th Century (Athens: Kapon, 2012), 51-117 (with the most recent and best pictures).
Feissel, D., Recueil des inscriptions chrétiennes de Macédoine du IIIe au VIe siècle (Bulletin de correspondance hellénique. Supplément; Athènes, Paris: Ecole française d'Athènes, De Boccard, 1983), 103-110 (for the inscriptions).
Fourlas, B., Die Mosaiken der Acheiropoietos-Basilika in Thessaloniki : eine vergleichende Analyse dekorativer Mosaiken des 5. und 6. Jahrhunderts (Millennium-Studien; Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2012), 156-195 (with a full survey of bibliography).
Kleinbauer, W.E., “The Iconography and the Date of the Mosaics of the Rotunda of Hagios Georgios, Thessaloniki,” Viator 3 (1972), 27-107 (extensive discussion of the hagiographic questions).
Spieser, J.M., Thessalonique et ses monuments du IVe au VIe siècle : contribution a l'étude d'une ville paléochrétienne (Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome; Paris: Boccard, 1984), 125-164.
Torp, H., La rotonde palatine à Thessalonique : architecture et mosaïques, 2 vols., Athènes: Kapon, 2018.
(with the most recent and best pictures)
Weigand, E., “Der Kalenderfries von Hagios Georgios in Thessalonike. Datierung, Ideen- und kunstgeschichtliche Stellung,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 39 (1939), 116-145.