And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 20. mai 2015

Cantos de Covarrubias, I - Cosme y Damián

 In the beginning of May I spent a long weekend in Spain together with some friends, and together we explored some of the many amazing medieval sites to be found in the Northern Spanish province of Burgos. It was a great trip in good company and beautiful surroundings, and as we were driving from Madrid we saw the landscape change as we advanced further north. Our first destination was the village of Covarrubias, a small place whose cityscape has retained most of its medieval layout and design, and which provides a beautiful setting for a few days of scholarly exploration.

One of the highlights of Covarrubias is the collegiate church. The site of the church was formerly the site of a Visigothic church in the seventh century, which in the twelfth century was replaced by a church in the Romanesque fashion. These churches were in turn supplanted by the current church, which found its present shape in the fifteenth century, with a cloister added in the sixteenth. Further additions to the interior, like the organ and the Baroque altarpieces, came in succeeding centuries. (1)

The church is dedicated to saints Cosmas and Damian, two healer-saints from the early church whose historicity is dubious, but who gained widespread devotion for their reputation as efficient doctors. Their cult is attested to in very early sources, and churches dedicated to them can be found as early as fifth-century Constantinople and sixth-century Rome (allegedly built by Pope Felix (2)). According to the later legend, Cosmas and Damian were twins and doctors who, out of Christian charity, refused to accept money for their cures, and who were able to heal both humans and animals alike.
Cosmas and Damian with a urine sample
Paris - Bibl. Mazarine - ms. 0507, f.174v, Book of Hours, Use of Tours, c.1490
Courtesy of Enluminures

Another urine sample
Vesoul - BM - ms. 0027, f.119, Book of Hours, Use of Besançon, c.1398
Courtesy of Enluminures

The story of the two brothers as recounted in Legenda Aurea tells how these two brothers were brought before a judge and commanded to sacrifice to idols together with their three brothers. The brothers refused and were thrown into the sea to drown, but were rescued by an angel and brought back before the judge, who attributed their miraculous rescue to their skill in sorcery. The judge then desired to learn this sorcery that could counter the elements, but when he had begged the brothers to teach him these magic arts he was assailed by demons. The brothers prayed for the disappearance of the demons, and when they had gone the judge imprisoned three of the brothers and ordered that Cosmas and Damian should be crucified and stoned. When the two saints were lapidated by the crowd, the stones bounced back onto the crowd “and wounded a great number”. Then the judge ordered archers to shoot them, but the arrows “turned and struck many”. The two saints were then beheaded, and became famous for a number of fantastic miracles. One of the most iconic was the leg-transplant they performed on a man with a cancerous leg. They appeared to the man while he was sleeping and replaced his leg with that of an Ethiopian who had died the same day. (3) This story was later represented as a black man having his leg replaced for a white one. (4)
Cosmas, Damian and brothers
 Blois - BM - ms. 0044, f.062v, martyrology and necrology of Pontlevoy, c.1140-41, central France
Courtesy of Enluminures

Martyrdom of Cosmas and Damian
MS Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

That Cosmas and Damian appeared to the cancerous man in his sleep is a crucial element, as the cult of the two healers replaced the incubation cults of pagan Antiquity in Asia Minor, Egypt and the Middle East. These popular healing sites were dedicated to pagan deities like Sarpedonius, and one of the legends of Cosmas and Damian refers to a Greek who confusedly referred to them as Castor and Pollux. (5)

How the cult spread to Spain I do not know, and the trajectory of these early cults can never be traced with any great degree of certainty. However, their appearance in a small, remote Northern Spanish village is unsurprising given their universal status as healers of Christians and their animals.


Main nave towards the altar

Main altar

Left side-nave

Chapel adjacent to the right side-nave, with effigy of the dead Christ

Altar of the side nave

Back to the main nave

The tower seen from the river

The church's summer resident, maybe benefitting from the curative powers of Cosmas and Damian



2): Legenda Aurea 2012: 584

3) Legenda Aurea 2012: 582-84

4) Farmer 2004: 122

5) Csepregi 2011: 19


Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Csepregi, Ildikó, “Theological Self-Definition in Byzantine Miraculous Healing”, printed in Gecser, Otto, Promoting the Saints, CEU Press, 2011


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