The Justice League of Medieval Saints and Their Basilica

The high altar of the Vierzehnheiligen
The high altar of the Vierzehnheiligen (photo: Photo Credit: “Cajetan”, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

If you were a kid, or had kids, in the seventies and eighties, you might remember the classic Saturday morning animated series Super Friends (1973-1986). The cartoon depicted the adventures of the Justice League, the DC Comics superhero team to which Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter belonged. The Justice League was an amazing collection of powerful men and women (and aliens) dedicated to promoting good and fighting evil in all of its forms. Each Justice League member had specific abilities and was called upon to perform a certain function for the good of the team and the world.

Very few people, Catholic or otherwise, would realize that the Church had its own version of the Justice League long before DC Comics came up with theirs.

The Vierzehnheiligen is the real-life, medieval Catholic version of the fictional Justice League. The fourteen saints, mostly martyrs, who composed the Holy Helpers, also had their own peculiar gifts and were called upon in specific situations—just like the members of the Justice League. The Basilica of the Fourteen Holy Helpers in Bavaria is dedicated to them.

While on my lecture tour of Germany, I made my way to Bad Staffelstein in northern Bavaria. It is a small, sleepy town in a valley so beautiful, the locals call it Gottesgarten am Obermain or "Eden on the Upper Main," the river that flows through it.

The town is named after the 1600-foot high Staffelberg mountain located at the edge of the village. The town received the name "Bad" in 2001 which refers to the thermal spa upon which it sits.

I wandered around Bad Staffelstein for a few minutes succeeding only in getting irretrievably lost. I stopped a passing German and asked if he spoke English. He didn't. The idea that continental Europeans commonly and easily speak English is an often-quoted and completely false myth. (Actually, I speak German as badly as a French cow so I'm very grateful to find any European who can speak English.)

I gave up trying to pronounce the word "Vierzehnheiligen." Instead, I held out ten fingers and then an additional four in my right hand. Then I made a quick sign of the cross and put my hands together as in prayer. A joyful, wide-eyed realization spread across his face.

"Ach! So! Zer vierzehn Heiligen?!" came back the happy response. The gentleman frantically gestured in the direction of the basilica. That sounded right so I thanked him and made my way to the church. The church overlooks the Main River, immediately opposite the Banz monastery. Its restrained yellow sandstone structure is a typical cruciform basilica.

The legend of the Fourteen Holy Helpers is a fascinating one. On September 24, 1445, Hermann Leicht, a young shepherd spotted a small child crying in a meadow. As he bent down to pick up the child, he instantly disappeared. A bit later, the child reappeared in the same spot along with two burning candles. In June, 1446, Hermann saw the child a third time, but this time he wore a red cross on its chest and was accompanied by thirteen other children who appeared in a circle of light. The child with the red cross on his chest spoke to Hermann saying, "We are the Fourteen Helpers and we wish to have a chapel erected here, where we can rest. If you will be our servant, we will be yours."

Most of us recognize some of the Fourteen Holy Helpers' names:

  • St. Achatius (Acacius), martyr, May 8 — invoked against headaches
  • St. Barbara, virgin and martyr, December 4 — invoked against fever/sudden death
  • St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, February 3 — invoked against illnesses of the throat
  • St. Catherine of Alexandria, virgin and martyr, November 25 — invoked against sudden death; patroness of prisoners
  • St. Christopher, martyr, July 25 — invoked against bubonic plague; patron of travelers
  • St. Cyriacus (Cyriac), deacon and martyr, August 8 — invoked against despair and deathbed temptations
  • St. Denis (Dionysius), bishop and martyr, October 9 — invoked against headaches
  • St. Erasmus (Elmo), bishop and martyr, June 2 — invoked against intestinal ailments and lightning; patron of sailors; the electrical phenomenon known as “St. Elmo’s Fire” is named for him
  • St. Eustace, martyr, September 20 — invoked against family discord
  • St. George “the Dragon Slayer”, soldier and martyr, April 23 — for the health of domestic animals
  • St. Giles (Aegidius), hermit and abbot, September 1 — invoked against plague/for a good confession
  • St. Margaret of Antioch, virgin and martyr, July 20 — invoked during childbirth
  • St. Pantaleon, bishop and martyr, July 27 — physicians
  • St. Vitus (Guy), martyr, June 15 — invoked against epilepsy; patron of dancers

In the 18th century, Abbot Stephan Moesinger hoped to build a new church to replace the original one which had quickly outgrown the enormous crowds of pilgrims who had come to venerate the Fourteen Holy Helpers. In 1742, Abbot Moesinger asked Johann Balthasar Neumann to come up with some ideas for the new church, all of which were ultimately rejected. In late 1738, the abbot called Heinrich Krohne, a Protestant architect from Weimar, to offer his ideas, which were similarly rejected by Bishop Karl Friedrich von Schoenborn of Bamberg over a fear of exorbitant building costs, and because they seemed too “Protestant”.

In 1742 the bishop, eager for movement on the project, hired Michael Kuechel, who produced a magnificent plan which included an "Altar of Grace" featuring statues of all 14 of the Holy Helpers. Unfortunately, these plans were rejected due to high proposed costs. Abbot Moesinger tired of the delays and asked Krohne for a simpler cruciform basilica design with only three naves and columns and a two steepled façade. Both the abbot and the bishop agreed to the plans and the long-delayed work commenced on April 23, 1743.

In a bizarre, underhanded, baggy-pants, French farce maneuver, Krohne switched the agreed upon plans for his own original, more Protestant design in which the "Altar of Grace" was replaced with a pulpit, making the declaration of the Gospel rather than the sacrifice of the Eucharist the center theme of the services. In December, 1743, the abbot and the bishop came to check on the progress of the construction and were shocked to learn of the trusted architect's perfidy and fired him on the spot. As Krohne's walls could not be removed, Neumann had to salvage what he could. All-in-all, the basilica took 29 years to construct. Bishop Adam Friedrich von Seinsheim consecrated the church on September 16, 1772.

Nothing can prepare you for the onslaught on the senses that is Rococo architecture which always portray a delightfully overwhelming whimsy. Sunlight is a key component to Rococo architecture which assures a great number of very large windows. Despite the basilica's sober, conservative façade, its interior is delightfully and mesmerizingly puckish. The interior is suffused with light and gives the illusion of infinite lush, sculpted, light-etched interior space. The only appropriate response to Rococo is to breathe in deeply and lose yourself as you exhale.

The basilica's interior is a magnificent, tightly-woven pastiche of joyful architecture, sculpture and painting designed so as to make it difficult to distinguish where one art form begins and the other ends. The ceiling mural over the church's nave depicts the Fourteen Helpers looking up to the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child.

Though opinions about Rococo architecture vary from individual to individual, very few other architectural forms engender a feeling of celestial bliss in the viewer.

"There's not a great deal of a difference between Rococo and Baroque," explains Seth Joseph Weine, a Fellow of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, "except to say that Rococo is more Baroque than Baroque ever intended on being. Rococo is generally considered the last phase of the Baroque. The decorative flourish of the Baroque becomes even more fluid, delicate, curvy-twisty, and complex and especially asymmetrical. Ornamental motifs that resemble shells or coral, with C- and S-shaped curves, show up in abundance throughout the structure."

One can easily feel overwhelmed stepping into Vierzehnheiligen Basilica. Imagine a magnificent and intricate wedding cake too beautiful to behold, let alone consume, and whose exquisite sweetness can even be tasted with the eye. Its architecture is sublime, transformative and sensuously hedonistic. It challenges the mind to wonder how such a structure could possibly exist on this material plane; it prompts the visitor to contemplate the world to come.

As stunning as the basilica is, the Vierzehnheiligen's Altar of Grace is its most magnificent element. The eye-catching altar rests on a circular sanctuary at the end of the church's nave. Like a splendid Rococo island floating in the middle of the church, the altar offers respite to those in need. The Fourteen Helper saints are represented around the altar as life-size statues.

The devotion to the Fourteen Holy Helpers spread throughout Christendom very quickly. Churches devoted to the Catholic Dream Team sprung up in Italy, Austria, Hungary and other countries. In the United States, there is only one church dedicated to them. It's located in Gardenville, New York, near Buffalo.

I stood before the Altar of Grace and offered a prayer. At times, I think we need more than only fourteen holy helpers. Thankfully, we have countless billions.