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The Other Church of Canoscio:
SS. Cosma e Damiano


[image ALT: A windowless two‑story stone church with a belfry attached, twice as tall. It is a view of the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Canoscio, Umbria (central Italy).]

Church and rectory front on a quiet road that leads to the top of Canoscio hill.


[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the façade of the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Canoscio, Umbria (central Italy); the church in the background is the Santuario della Madonna.]

In this even more placid view
we see the Santuario della Madonna on top of the hill about 800 m away.

For many centuries now, this hill of Canoscio has been a focal place of Umbrian devotion. Now since the mid‑19c, the shrine of the Madonna at the summit has been the hot point as it were; but for several hundred years before that, this isolated church was the center of religious life in the area; and just as the modern church owes its origins to the thankfulness of one man for his health, this lower church as well has a connection to health, at least judging by its titular saints, Cosmas and Damian, said to have been 3c doctors: they remain even now the patron saints of medicine.

Not surprising then that the Pieve SS. Cosma e Damiano should once have been frescoed from stem to stern with votive paintings. Unfortunately, the church has suffered a great deal of damage over the centuries, and from the looks of it, is still being infiltrated by rain; some of the frescoes are unrecoverable, a few more are unreadable, and none is in the shape the artist or churchgoer would wish.


[image ALT: A long rectangular church nave, with wooden pews, leading to an altar in an apsidal niche; many disparate patches of fresco are seen on right and left walls, some square, others mere fragments. It is an interior view of the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Canoscio, Umbria (central Italy).]

An overview of the dark interior, slightly enhanced. Notice that someone long ago already thought it was dark in here, and cut windows into the frescoed wall of the apse (see close‑up).


[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the interior of the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Canoscio, Umbria (central Italy).]
		
[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the interior of the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Canoscio, Umbria (central Italy).]
		
[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the interior of the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Canoscio, Umbria (central Italy).]

[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the interior of the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Canoscio, Umbria (central Italy).]
		
[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the interior of the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Canoscio, Umbria (central Italy).]

[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the interior of the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Canoscio, Umbria (central Italy).]
		
[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the interior of the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Canoscio, Umbria (central Italy).]

A sampler of the frescoes: the horizontal thumbnails open full-size in another window.

1: Three very primitive votive paintings in a row, all of them St. Sebastian.

2: St. Benedict: maybe the best painting in the church.

3: Madonna and Child.

4: If you have a reasonably firm suggestion as to what this represents, I'd be very glad to hear from you. This too is very good, and it's a great shame the fresco is damaged.

5: One group of frescoes is signed November 1348.

6: Madonna della Misericordia and Four Saints (my guess: Peter, Michael, Ursula and Catherine of Alexandria).

— and on the left, St. Anthony Abbot: again, a pity he's damaged.

Finally, among the fragments of frescoes, we can be pleased that this one has survived to our time:

[image ALT: zzz]

N wall of the nave, 14c representation of the Trinity.

I won't venture to guess how common it was in the Middle Ages to depict the Trinity as a three-headed man. Despite roaming churches in central Italy for a dozen years now, I've only seen four such paintings, all in Umbria; of which this is the most elegant, and probably strikes most of us merely as odd.

Similar to this, but in much worse condition, a fresco at Ponte di Cerreto; other solutions show a man with three faces on a single head — in the church of S. Agata in Perugia — and the downright freakish expedient of lining God's three heads on an extra-wide pair of shoulders reminding one most unfortunately of apothecary's jars on a shelf: in a chapel in the Rocca Flea of Gualdo Tadino, where, alas, photography is prohibited.

Church authorities have been aware of the dangers inherent in such depictions, and we usually find the paintings disinfected as it were by text, so that there might be no misunderstanding. Here the text is very similar, but not identical, to the passage of the Athanasian Creed: "And the Catholic faith is that we worship one God in the Trinity, and the Trinity in unity."

Still, I suspect that this visual aid to the theology of the Trinity was once more common; a fresco of the same type at S. Maria in Via near Corciano, for example, is known to have been destroyed in the 18c. Fond as I am of things antiquarian, I started out by saying I'm pleased this survived; yet I wonder but that, had I been a 17c or 18c bishop concerned for the spiritual welfare of my flock, I might not have ordered them destroyed in my diocese.


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Page updated: 12 Jun 05