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Who were the medieval Avengers? (Medieval Avengers #1)

LEGO Marvel Custom Medieval Avengers

LEGO Marvel Custom Medieval Avengers

I was at the Louvre earlier this month and exploring some of the less popular galleries (on purpose – it was a Monday, the day when most Paris museums are closed so all the tourists end up here). I came across this altarpiece in one of the medieval galleries.

Altarpiece with the 14 Holy Helpers (Louvre, Paris)

Altarpiece with the 14 Holy Helpers, from Franconia, end of 15th c. On the left: Sts Cyriac, Guy, and Giles. In the middle: Sts Acace (or Eustace), Christopher, Erasmus, Blaise, George, Pantaleon, Nicholas, and Eustace (or Acace). On the right: Sts Catherine, Barbara, and Margaret. (Photo by Hana Videen)

I was very curious about who the Holy Helpers were. I’d never heard of them before, and when I saw this altarpiece, I assumed it was a grouping of some saints that the people of this 15th-century Franconian church had particularly liked. Later on Wikipedia I learned that the Fourteen Holy Helpers (a.k.a. the Intercessors) are a special saint team of the Late Middle Ages.

I already knew about a couple of saint groupings: The Four Evangelists and The Twelve Apostles. But this saint grouping particularly interested me for a number of reasons:

  • I had never heard of them.
  • The group includes three women (that’s three more than in those other two groupings). Wikipedia even describes them as being ‘at the heart’ of the fourteen, although I haven’t researched this, and I’m a bit dubious since the altarpiece shows them on a side panel, not the centre. (Please comment below if you know more!)
  • Praying to them as a group is seen as more effective than praying to only a few individuals (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts).
  • People started praying to them because an unimaginable calamity had struck Europe, the Black Death. (In the fourteenth century alone it is estimated to have killed 200 million people.)

A year and a half ago I wrote a post that explored how saints were the superheroes of the Middle Ages. So this group of saints naturally made me think of Marvel’s Avengers (mute if you don’t want epic superhero music in the background).

The Avengers (Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015)

The Avengers (Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015). (Image found on Kotaku blog post)

The Avengers, as most of you probably know, are ‘Earth’s mightiest heroes [who] must come together and learn to fight as a team’ (IMDb: Avengers Assemble). In the 2012 film Avengers Assemble they must stop a power-hungry Norse god (the god of mischief, no less) and his alien army from enslaving humanity. In Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) they have to prevent humanity’s destruction from an all-powerful A.I. Granted these movies are sci-fi, emphasis on fi; nonetheless the villains represent some of the big fears of the modern world: a dictator or terrorist group seeking to take over the world and our self-destruction from advances in technology. In fourteenth century Europe people had a very real fear, which, while real, could not be understood by the greatest minds. That fear was the most deadly disease outbreak in history.

The burial of the victims of the plague in Tournai. Detail of a miniature from 'The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis' (1272-1352), abbot of the monastery of St Martin of the Righteous. Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v. (Wikimedia Commons)

The burial of the victims of the plague in Tournai. Detail of a miniature from ‘The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis’ (1272-1352), abbot of the monastery of St Martin of the Righteous. Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Veneration of the Fourteen Holy Helpers began in Rhineland (modern-day Germany) in the fourteenth century. While this veneration could have developed for a number of reasons, it can be no coincidence that fourteen saints with the power to heal became a disease-fighting team at a time when a third of Europe’s human population were dying from bubonic plague. While each of these fourteen saints could protect against different illnesses – a sore throat, a headache, epilepsy, even the plague itself – their team intercession was believed to be particularly effective. Why pray to just one saint when a team of fourteen could be fighting against the most deadly evil the world had seen? The cult of the Fourteen Holy Helpers spread in the fifteenth century, and while each saint had her or his own feast day, in some places they were also venerated as a group on August 8 (although this was never a universal Catholic feast day).

Carving by Tilman Riemenschneider (c. 1460- 1531) of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, at Mainfränkisches Museum Würzburg. (Photo from blog post about Würzburg, Germany)

Carving by Tilman Riemenschneider (c. 1460- 1531) of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, at Mainfränkisches Museum Würzburg. (Photo from blog post about Würzburg, Germany)

Originally I was going to make this a single post, but these saints are just too interesting, so over the next few weeks there will be a series of ‘medieval Avengers’ posts. First up are the women, so stay tuned for these badasses…

Saints Catherine, Barbara, and Margaret, from a 15th-century altarpiece from Franconia (now in the Louvre). (Photo by Hana Videen)

Saints Catherine, Barbara, and Margaret, from a 15th-century altarpiece from Franconia (now in the Louvre). (Photo by Hana Videen)

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10 comments on “Who were the medieval Avengers? (Medieval Avengers #1)

  1. Perspeculor (Travel & History)
    November 26, 2015

    This is such an interesting comparison! I’d never heard of the Fourteen Holy Helpers so I’ll be looking out for your future posts.

    • beoshewulf
      November 26, 2015

      Thank you! I will hopefully write the next post soon.

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  8. marypilat
    August 23, 2016

    Thanks for using my pic of the Fourteen Holy Helpers in Wurzburg. We were so stunned by these Saints that we followed them up to Basilica of the Fourteen Holy Helpers designed by Balthasar Neumann in Staffelstein. How you have compared them to modern day Avengers is epic! I love it.

    • Hana Videen
      August 23, 2016

      Thanks! Your picture is great. There are surprisingly few images online of this saint team.

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