I’d visited the Roman Forum a number of times before, starting before the city of Rome fenced it in and began charging visitors to walk the same stones that Cleopatra and Marc Antony walked, to gaze on the steps of the Senate where Julius Caesar died, to stand beneath the ruins of the Temple of Saturn and marvel at its unimaginable former splendor. When they started charging, I visited less, but who needs to walk those ancient stones every morning on the way to coffee anyway? Once or twice a week was enough.
So while I can’t say I knew the Forum inside and out, I knew it well enough to know that the mosaic I glimpsed on the ceiling of a church I had barely noticed before, was new. Well, not new new. Nothing in Rome really is, and especially not in the very heart of it. But new to my eyes.
My heart stopped as my feet did, and I searched frantically for a way in to the church, or temple, before me. It’s bronze doors did not yield, it’s hexagonal design defied my attempts at finding another entrance, and finally I had to conclude that there was no way in. At least, not from the ground level. (I later learned that these doors are kept locked, they can be opened with a key – the original key that locked those doors for the first time in the 4th century. A 1700 year old key in a 1700 year old lock.)
I left, determined to find my way in. I didn’t – not that year. But the following summer I returned, knowing some things. For instance, that it’s the oldest church in the Roman Forum, originally created in 527 by Pope Felix. I say created, not built, because the structure was there and Pope Felix added an apse mosaic – the one that had caught my eye, in fact – and some basic church-ey furnishings. And that this act of changing a temple into a church signaled the fact that the Church was finally more powerful than the pagan beliefs that had until then dominated. I learned that its name is the Basilica of Santi Cosma e Damiano, and that these two men were twin brothers, physicians both, and that for centuries sick people came to the church to sleep within its walls in the belief that so doing would cure them of whatever they suffered from. And I learned that the entrance is outside of the Forum, from the Via dei Fori Imeperiali – the street that runs beside the Coliseum.
So in I went, and like a pilgrim I walked straight to the part of the interior from which it is possible to stare open-mouthed, and I’m sure I did, at the mosaics that had by then haunted my dreams for a year. Masterpieces of 6th- and 7th-century Byzantine-style art, these mosaics show Christ’s second coming. Christ himself is in the center, with Saint Peter presenting Saint Cosmas and Saint Theodorus (right), and Saint Paul presenting Saint Damian and Pope Felix IV. The entire is brilliantly colored; blue and gold predominate, with reds and whites and greens as secondary hues.
We are not so well versed in how to read the stories told to us on Church ceilings as people of the past have been. Sheep and the temples in Jerusalem and the four rivers of Paradise and clouds and scrolls and crowns and golden water and palm trees and phoenixes and thrones seem jumbled, and to my eyes become less about a perfect story than about sublime beauty. It’s hard to believe, and yet so perfectly apt – we’re in Rome, after all – that these vivid colors have survived 1400 + years, that the story they tell is one that still gets told, and that the dome and the heavens are somehow not actually the same thing.