Fourteen Holy Helpers
FOURTEEN HOLY HELPERS
A group of 14 saints traditionally venerated together, especially in Germany (feast, August 8). They are three bishops, denis of paris (feast, October 9; invoked against headache and rabies), Erasmus, called elmo (June 2; invoked against colic and cramp), and blaise (February 3; invoked against throat troubles); three virgins, barbara (December 4; invoked against lightning, fire, explosion, and sudden and unprepared death), margaret (July 20; invoked against possession and by pregnant women), and catherine of alexandria (November 25; invoked by philosophers, students, wheelers, etc.); three knightly patrons, george (April 23; protector of soldiers), Achatius (June 22), and Eustace (September 20; invoked by hunters); the physician Pantaleon (July 27; invoked against tuberculosis); the monk giles (September 1; invoked against epilepsy, insanity, and sterility); the deacon Cyriac (August 8; invoked against demoniac possession); the martyr Vitus (June 15; invoked against epilepsy and "Vitus dance"); and the giant christopher (July 25; invoked by travelers in difficulties). Latin terms for these helper saints were manifold: auxiliatores, auxiliantes, intercessores, adiutores, coadiutores, adiuvantes or simply quatuordecim sancti. Calling a saint a Nothelfer, a "Helper in Need," was current German usage from the late 12th century. Judging from earlier medieval art it would seem that Leonard of Noblat originally had the place of Cyriac. In fact, in southern Germany, including Nuremberg, it is Leonard, not Cyriac, who appears most often until c. 1520. Down to the 16th century certain localities made special substitutions; thus SS. Nicholas, Sixtus, Wolfgang, Sebastian, or Oswald might be counted a Helper. The Diocese of Augsburg, probably under the influence of the monastery of Sankt magnus of fÜssen, added a 15th name, St. Magnus.
The cult was advanced first by the Dominicans, later by the Cistercians and the Benedictines. The nobility, the urban aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie were equally favorable to the cult, and powerful religious movements and the plague years of the 14th century may have been responsible for its promotion. Its attraction lay in the power of the group as a whole, although individual saints were later assigned a special patronage; churches and altars dedicated to one of the 14 included the remainder of the group as subsidiaries.
The earliest pictorial witness of the cult is a fresco in the Dominican church of St. Blaise in Regensburg (c. 1320). In Nuremberg the cult developed and spread extensively in the 14th and 15th centuries; it was especially fostered there by the Dominican sisters of St. Catherine's. Having been diffused throughout southern Germany and the German-speaking Alps, the cult was carried into central Germany from Bamberg. Elsewhere only sporadic traces of it can be found. Veneration reached its high point in the mid-15th century with the Vierzehnheiligen pilgrimage on the Upper Main River in the Diocese of Bamberg. The feast of the Holy Helpers was given its own Office and Mass, probably the result of the pilgrimage. Soon confraternities began to develop. The origins of Vierzehnheiligen are outlined in a work printed in 1519; it reports that the son of a shepherd of the Cistercian monastery of Langheim, while watching sheep in a district originally called Frankenthal, had a vision c. 1445 of a group of 14 children with the Child Jesus in their midst; the Child told the shepherd that these were the 14 Holy Helpers, who from this spot wished henceforth to dispense their favors. (Thirty-three years prior to this book appearance, a Holy Helper altar in Langenberg, near Gera, Thuringia, had already pictorially portrayed the miracle.) Immediately a chapel was built on the site of the alleged apparition, and its altar was dedicated in 1448. Destroyed in 1525 during the peasants' War, the shrine was rebuilt on a larger scale and dedicated in 1543. The cornerstone of the present basilica was laid in 1743 and the new baroque edifice, one of the most important of 18th-century German churches (by Balthasar Neumann), was dedicated in 1772. Pilgrimage processions, organized by parishes and confraternities, are still frequent and Vierzehnheiligen remains one of the most important pilgrim shrines of the Dioceses of Bamberg and Würzburg.
The earliest iconography of the Fourteen Holy Helpers displays them in a single row, headed by St. Christopher. Often they are grouped around the figures of the Madonna and Child or around the figure of St. Christopher carrying the Holy Child in his arms. Not infrequently they are grouped around the Man of Sorrows. Baroque art preferred to use a Root of Jesse motif, with the saints among the branches. At the Vierzehnheiligen shrine and in numerous wayside shrines that stand along Franconia's pilgrimage routes to Vierzehnheiligen, the Holy Helpers are depicted in a circle surrounding the Child; often it is a circle of 14 children as in the original apparition. Artistic monuments to the Helpers include late Gothic paintings, such as those by Hans Burgkmair, Lucas Cranach, and Matthias grÜnewald.
Feast: Aug. 8.
Bibliography: Literature. h. weber, Die Verehrung der heiligen vierzehn Nothelfer (Kempten 1886). h. gÜnter, Legenden-Studien (Cologne 1906). j. klapper, "Die vierzehn Nothelfer im deutschen Osten," Volk und Volkstum 3 (1938) 158–192. j. dÜnninger, "Die Wallfahrtslegende von Vierzehnheiligen," in Festschrift für Wolfgang Stammler (Berlin 1953) 192–205. g. schreiber, "Die vierzehn Nothelfer in Volksfrömmigkeit und Sakralkultur," (Schlern-Schriften 168; Innsbruck 1959) 261–310.