Do you remember the popular Disney movie from the 1960s called “The Parent Trap”?  In it, a girl goes to camp and discovers that she has an identical twin.  It is actually based on a 1949 story by the German author Erich Kästner titled Das Doppelte Lottchen, “Doubled Lottie.”  Today’s icon saints are like the “Doubled Lottie” story gone extreme.

To make it very simple, there are two saints very prominent throughout Eastern Orthodoxy, whether in Greek, Russian, or Balkan iconography.  They are called in English Cosmas and Damian, in Russia Kozma and Domian (sometimes spelled Damian), and in Greek Kosmas and Damianos.

As you already know from previous postings, the Eastern Orthodox calendar of saints is filled with confused and dubious stories, and Cosmas and Damian exemplify that. Why?  Because in that calendar there are three different pairs of brothers with exactly the same names and titles, and all were physicians.

1.  There is the Cosmas and Damian pair of brothers and physicians celebrated on July 1, said to have been born in Rome.
2.  There is the Cosmas and Damian pair of brothers and physicians celebrated on October 17th, said to have been born in Arabia.
3.  There is the Cosmas and Damian pair of brothers and physicians celebrated on November 1, said to have been born in Asia Minor.

To confuse matters further, all three pairs are given the title ΑΝΑΡΓΥΡΟΙ (Anargyroi)  in Greek.  An– means “without” –Argyr– means “silver,” and the –oi ending indicates the plural.  “Without silver” means that they did not accept payment (think silver coins) for their medical services, something that would horrify today’s medical profession, at least in the United States.

In Russia they are called БЕЗСРЕБРЕННИКИ (Bezsrebrenniki).  Bez– means “without” “—-srebren-” means “silver,” –nik- means loosely “person” and the –i ending indicates the plural, so the meaning is much the same as in Greek, “those who are without silver,” again the significance is that they did not take money for their healing services.  Both the Greek and Slavic titles are generally translated loosely into Engish as “Unmercenaries.”

Modern scholars of hagiography tell us that these three pairs of physician brothers/twins/unmercenaries, all of whom are martyrs, are in fact the same original pair in triplicate, with differing biographies added to them over time.  They opine that this replication of the same pair of saints came about because churches in different locations where the saints were particularly honored came, over time, to assume that “their” Cosmas and Damian were different than the Cosmas and Damian commemorated elsewhere.  As we have seen, the ranks of Eastern Orthodox saints have never really been critically examined by the Eastern Orthodox, who have never had an investigative office such as the Bollandists in the Roman Catholic Church, and so the lives of the Eastern Orthodox saints are often confused and wholly or partly fictitious.

All of that is interesting background, but the thing to remember about the iconography of Cosmas and Damian is that those one generally sees in Russian icons are the Cosmas and Damian born supposedly in Asia Minor sometime not later than the 4th century, where also they were said to have been martyred for their faith in the 3rd century (as you can see, even their dates are confused and uncertain).

There is a rather bizarre story about the burial of the brothers.  It is said that a woman named Palladia was so grateful for her cure that she offered them her estate in payment, which of course they refused.  But later Palladia went to Damian and gave him three eggs.  Cosmas found that Damian had accepted the eggs, and was so opposed to receiving any payment for services that on his deathbed he said that he did not want Damian buried with him.

It happened, however, that the brothers had once cured a camel.  When Damian finally died, those with him were puzzled about what to do with the body, given that Cosmas had said he did not want Damian buried with him.  The matter was solved when the camel that had been healed showed up, and began speaking in a human voice, saying that Damian had not accepted the eggs as payment for medical services, but rather just as a symbol of honor to the Holy Trinity.  So, having heard the excuse direct from the camel’s mouth,  they buried Damian with his brother Cosmas.

As in the following Russian examples, the physician brothers are shown standing side by side,  Kozma generally on the left, and Domian/Damian on the right.  Each holds a medicine box.

In the first example below, we see them painted somewhat realistically in a State Church icon in the manner of the late 19th-beginning of the 20th century.  The background or “light” of the icon is gilded and elaborately incised with twining decoration, and a small image of the “Umilenie”  type of Marian icon is above them


The next example is a late icon painted in a much earlier style.  Again it shows Kozma and Domian holding their medicine boxes, with Jesus blessing from the clouds above:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

This third image again shows them in their typical forms, holding medicine boxes, and above them is an image of the Birth of John the Forerunner.  From the position of the fingers in the “blessing” hand of Domian, this appears to be an Old Believer icon rather than a State Church image.  Note the realistic background landscape, something borrowed from Western European art, and even found, rather uncharacteristically, in many Old Believer icons.

The medicine boxes held by these saints may include medicine spoons, or, as in this example, feathers; these were used to apply medicine.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

In painters’ manuals, the three pairs of “Cosmas and Damian” saints may be distinguished somewhat like this:

The “Asia Minor” pair are depicted as in middle age, with beards of equal length, feathers in hand, holding open medicine boxes, and ochre boots on their feet.

The “Roman” pair are depicted as young, with Cosmas having the face and hair of Demetrios of Thessaloniki, and Damian like the Great Martyr George with his curly hair, holding crosses of martyrdom in their right hands and a medicine box in the left.

The “Arabian” pair are depicted like the patrons of horses Flor and Lavr (Florus and Lavrus) with Cosmas in middle age and Damian younger.

There are several “unmercenary” saints in Eastern Orthodoxy, but the most famous and most often seen in icons are the brothers Cosmas and Damian, as well as the other prominent physician saint Panteleimon, who is discussed in a previous posting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.