Þæt wæs god blog!
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.
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.
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, 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.
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).
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…