Beauty in Death: Martyrdom of Saint Cosmas and Damian

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Beauty in Death

An Investigation of the Divine Demise 
Curated by Tommy Dunn

Fra Angelico, Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian, 1430

The twin brothers Cosmas and Damian traveled the Mediterranean healing people for free and extolling the virtues of the Christian faith. They famously healed a wounded white man in Africa by grafting a dead black man’s leg onto his below the knee. Despite their good works and the love they met wherever they went, they fell victim to Diocletian’s purges. They were captured and ordered to recant Christianity. Their captors tortured them endlessly and heinously in every way they could dream up—still to no avail. Finally, the exasperated local leader of the purges decides to behead the duo along with several of their brothers who supported them to the end.

Fra Angelico’s use of color here really brings out the scene for me. The sanguine, menacing reds of the blood and the outfits of several of the figures contrast with the cool, comfortable blues that permeate the painting. I have always liked Fra Angelico’s color schemes. He uses a simple palate, and yet I think that his color scheme is every bit as powerful as the more nuanced colors of the masters who came after him. His colors make bold statements—what they lack in complexity they make up for in power. This painting falls slightly outside the normal bounds of the theme that I have chosen. While it of course depicts martyrdom, the saints here have already been beheaded. There is no moment of salvation or connection with the divine. However, this painting shows that art can take a truly ugly scene such as this, where no redemption is present, and transform it into something beautiful while still getting the meaning of the story across. That is the power of Fra Angelico’s painting. Even in a brutal scene like this, he finds beauty.

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