Today is the feast day of Saints Cosmas and Damian (Κοσμάς και Δαμιανός, Kosmás kai Damianós). Until 1969 their feast day was tomorrow but because September 27th is the dies natalis (“day of birth” into Heaven) of Saint Vincent de Paul, now more widely venerated in the Latin Church, it was moved to today. In Canada it has been moved to September 25th because September 26th is the Feast of the Canadian Martyrs in Canada. The curse of being important enough to be venerated, but not so important that you take precedence over others. Cosmas and Damian were reputedly twin brothers who were physicians and early Christian martyrs. They practiced their profession in the seaport of Aegeae, then in the Roman province of Syria. They accepted no payment for their services and so were called Anargyroi (Greek Ανάργυροι, “the silverless” or “Unmercenaries”) and it is claimed that this practice attracted many to the Christian faith.
Nothing definitive is known about their lives except that they suffered martyrdom in Syria during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. According to Christian traditions, the twin brothers were born in Arabia and became skilled doctors. Saladino d’Ascoli, a 15th century Italian physician, claims that the medieval electuary (a pasty mass consisting of a drug mixed with sugar and water or honey to make it palatable) known as opopira magna, a complex compound medicine used to treat diverse problems including paralysis, was invented by Cosmas and Damian.
There is a legend that they were able to replace an ulcerous leg of a Roman with a healthy leg from a recently deceased ‘Ethiopian’ (or a ‘Moor’ in other versions), which found its way into many images over the years, no doubt because the idea of a white man with one black leg was aesthetically and physically unusual. One has to be skeptical that this actually occurred. An oddity also lies in the fact that it was considered sacrilegious to desecrate a corpse by removing a leg, but the Ethiopian was probably a slave, so the removal of his leg was not considered a desecration, because in some quarters it was believed that a slave did not possess a soul.
During the persecution under Diocletian, Cosmas and Damian were arrested by order of the Prefect of Cilicia, named Lysias who ordered them under torture to recant. However, according to legend they stayed true to their faith, enduring being hung on a cross, stoned and shot by arrows and finally suffered execution by beheading. Anthimus, Leontius and Euprepius, their younger brothers, who were inseparable from them throughout life, shared in their martyrdom.
As early as the 4th century, churches dedicated to the twin saints were established at Jerusalem, in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. Devotion to the two saints spread rapidly in both East and West. Theodoret records the division of their reputed relics. Their relics, deemed miraculous, were buried in the city of Cyrrus in Syria. Churches were built in their honor by Archbishop Proclus and by Emperor Justinian I (527–565), who sumptuously restored the city of Cyrus and dedicated it to the twins, but brought their purported relics to Constantinople. There, following his cure, ascribed to the intercession of Cosmas and Damian, Justinian, in gratitude also built and adorned their church at Constantinople, and it became a celebrated place of pilgrimage. At Rome Pope Felix IV (526–530) rededicated the Library of Peace (Bibliotheca Pacis) as a basilica of Santi Cosma e Damiano in the Forum of Vespasian in their honor. The church is much rebuilt but still famed for its 6th-century mosaics illustrating the saints.
What are said to be their skulls are venerated in the convent of the Clares in Madrid, where they have been since 1581, the gift of Maria, daughter of Emperor Charles V. They had previously been removed from Rome to Bremen in the 10th century, and thence to Bamberg. Other skulls said to be theirs were discovered in 1334 by Burchard Grelle, Archbishop of Bremen. He “personally ‘miraculously’ retrieved the relics of the holy physicians Cosmas and Damian, which were allegedly immured and forgotten in the choir of the Bremen Cathedral. In celebration of the retrieval Archbishop and Chapter arranged a feast at Pentecost 1335, when the relics were translated from the wall to a more dignified place. Grelle claimed the relics were those Archbishop Adaldag brought from Rome in 965. The cathedral master-builder Johann Hemeling made a shrine for the relics, which was finished around 1420. The shrine, made from carved oak wood covered with gilt and rolled silver is considered an important medieval gold work. In 1649 Bremen’s Chapter, Lutheran by this time, sold the shrine without the heads to Maximilian I of Bavaria. The two heads remained in Bremen and came into the possession of the small Roman Catholic community. They were shown from 1934 to 1968 in the Church of St. Johann and in 1994 they were buried in the crypt. The shrine is now shown in the Jesuit church of St Michael in Munich. At least since 1413 another supposed pair of skulls of the saints has been stored in St Stephens’s Cathedral in Vienna. Other relics are claimed by the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.
Sts Cosmas and Damian are regarded as the patrons of physicians and surgeons and are sometimes represented with medical emblems. Cosmas and Damian are depicted as supporters of the arms of the guild of barber-surgeons carved into a capital, 15th century, from the Carmes monastery in Trie-sur-Baïse in southwestern France. The inscription reads, “Saints Cosmas and Damian pray for us”.
In Brazil, the twin saints are regarded as protectors of children, and September 27 is commemorated, especially in Rio de Janeiro, by giving children bags of candy with the saints’ effigy printed on them and throughout the entire state of Bahia where Catholics and adepts of Candomblé religion offer typical food such as caruru. The ritual consists of first offering the food to seven children that are no older than seven years old and then having them feast while sitting on the floor and eating with their hands. Only after all children have finished can the guests enjoy the food that is being offered. The Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, in Igarassu, Pernambuco is Brazil’s oldest church, built in 1535.
SS Cosmas & Damian are venerated every year in Utica, New York at St. Anthony’s Parish during the annual pilgrimage which takes place on the last weekend of September (close to the old September 27th feast day). There are thousands of pilgrims who come to honor the saints. Over 80 busloads come from Canada and other destinations. The 2-day festival includes music (La Banda Rosa), much Italian food, masses and processions through the streets of East Utica. It is one of the largest festivals honoring saints in the northeast USA.
Italian-American cooking is pretty dull by my lights. Afro-Brazilian food from Bahia is much more interesting to me. So, let’s go with caruru. Caruru is a dish mainly of okra and dried shrimp, typically served with acarajé, deep fried balls made with mashed black-eyed peas. Both have west African roots, and are similar to dishes found there. Caruru can be served garnished with freshly poached shrimp for a more substantial dish.
2 lbs. okra, trimmed and cut into small rounds
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 lb. dried small shrimp, ground in a food processor
½ lb roasted, unsalted, cashews, ground in a food processor
¾ cup palm oil
juice of one lime
Heat the palm oil in a deep, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the ginger and cook for an additional minute or two. Add the okra, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the okra is soft. Add the ground shrimp, garlic, and cashews, and cook for an additional five minutes.
Add water just to cover. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the okra seeds change color from white to rosy-pink (about 15 minutes). Add the lime juice at the end, or when the dish gets too dry.
Serve hot with rice and/or acarajé. To be fully traditional eat with your fingers.