July 2, 2012

Is the Miracle of the "Transplant of the Black Leg" by the Holy Unmercenaries a Miracle or Myth?

By John Sanidopoulos

Dr. Athanasios V. Avramidis, a Cardiologist and Professor of Pathology at the University of Athens, writes about a controversial "miracle" attributed to Sts. Kosmas and Damian, popularly known in the West as the "transplantation of the black leg".

He refers to a book written by the Bioethics Committee of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, chaired by the now Metropolitan Nicholas Hatzinikolaou of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki, titled Church and Transplantation, which has a cover of an icon of Sts. Kosmas and Damian transplanting the leg of a black man onto that of a white man.

As for which of the pair of Sts. Kosmas and Damian referred to, as there are three pairs known by the same name and identified as "Unmercenaries" (commemorated on October 17, November 1 and July 1), the pair associated with this miracle are the ones celebrated on July 1st and known as "the Romans".

According to Metropolitan Nicholas, in the section of his book titled "The Role of Medicine" (pp. 120-123), he writes: "Characteristically there are attributed to the Holy Unmercenaries Kosmas and Damian several daring operations, even the first transplant."

This supposed miracle of the black leg has its origins in the West and is said to have taken place after Pope Felix IV built a church dedicated to the Unmercenary Saints in Rome around 530 AD. This church had a guardian whose leg became cancerous or suffered from gangrene. One night in his sleep this guardian saw Sts. Kosmas and Damian holding ointments and discussing the surgery and where they would find a leg to replace his rotten one. They figured that an Ethiopian was buried that day at the Cemetery of Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, so they would take that leg and replace it with his rotten one. When the guardian awoke, he noticed he had one black leg and his original white one, and he was cured. He immediately ran to the tomb of the Ethiopian to confirm it was his leg, and indeed the leg of the Ethiopian was missing.

There are a few other versions of the miracle, one that deals with a slave instead of a guardian and another that deals with a deacon name Justinian instead of the guardian, but the one above is most popular.

This miracle has captured the imagination of artists in the West, and over 1500 paintings depict this event in various churches and museums. The oldest painting dates back to 1270. Also, in the church built by Pope Felix the relics of the Unmercenary Saints lie, and above the relics is the depiction of this miracle. The relics of the Saints were brought to Rome from Constantinople in the 6th century.

The depiction of the miracle of the black leg has recently become popular in Orthodox iconography as well, based on the Western depictions. One example of many can be found in the Church of Sts. Kosmas and Damian in Boeria, Greece. And the miracle is often referred to in medical manuals dealing with the history of transplantation.

The Professor of Nuclear Physics at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Dr. K. Karakatsanis, recently issued a book titled "Brain Death" and Organ Transplants, from a medical and philosophical approach. In the book he addresses the issue of this miracle of the transplantation of the black leg. On pp. 192-193 he specifically mentions that this miracle is not found anywhere in any Orthodox sources of the lives of the Saints. At Simonopetra Monastery there is a handwritten text, Codex Vallicellianus F 16 (U de Deubner), MCD. 48 (an unpublished dissertation by the French physician Jean Nourry), which refers to this miracle. Variations of the miracle can also be found as old as the Legende Dorée of Jacques de Vorragine (14th century). What he conclusively found however was that all sources date well after the Great Schism and are only referenced to in Western sources, though the miracle supposedly took place around 800 years before the first reference.

Because of these facts, many have called the miracle of the black leg a myth that should not be used in historical textbooks dealing with transplantation and should not be depicted in the iconography of Orthodox churches. Whether a myth or not, caution should be used based on this evidence.

Dr. Athanasios V. Avramidis concludes that he believes in miracles, but does not find it inappropriate to disregard a miracle that has no proper historical foundation in the books of the lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church. He understands and appreciates however those who choose to believe in this miracle, and leaves the matter in "God's hands".