Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Catholic Bamberg: Vierzehnheiligen

While visiting Catholic Bamberg, we have already made a little excursion to Banz Abbey, about half an hour North of Bamberg in the upper valley of the River Main. As mentioned then, opposite Banz on the other side of the Main valley is the famous Shrine of the Fourteen Holy Helpers - Vierzehnheiligen - which we visit today. It is one of the chief works of one of, if not the most important German baroque architects, Balthasar Neumann.

The church is built around the site of a series of apparitions. On 24 September 1445, Hermann Leicht, the young shepherd of the nearby Cistercian abbey of Langheim, saw a crying child in a field. As he bent down to pick up the child, it disappeared. In a second vision a short time later, the child appeared again in the same spot. This time, two candles were burning next to it. In the following year, on 28 June 1446, Leicht saw the child a third time. This time, the child bore a red cross on its chest and was accompanied by fourteen other children, who were all dressed in the same manner, half red and half white. The child said: "We are the fourteen helpers and wish to have a chapel here, where we will graciously rest." Thereupon, the children disppeared in the clouds. Eighteen days after this last apparition, a fatally ill maid from Langheim was cured after invoking the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Immediately a pilgrimage began, and Langheim abbey, which before had been sceptical, recognised the apparitions. The first chapel was dedicated in 1448.

The present church was built from 1743 to 1772. Its unique interior, which is the one most strongly characterised by the spirit of the rococo in Neumann's work, is actually due to an irregularity in the construction. The abbot of Langheim, whose ardent wish it was to build a new abbey church in Langheim, wanted to reduce the cost for the new church in Vierzehnheiligen as much as possible. Therefore, even after the orginal plans of his own architect had been rejected by the Prince Bishop of Bamberg, he unauthorisedly reapplied them after the laying of the foundation stone in April of 1743. When this was discovered by Neumann, he and the Prince Bishop were aghast. However, the walls of the three apses had already been erected up to a height of three metres. Therefore, the shifting of the exterior plan by ten metres up the mountain could not be undone. The altar of grace (which being the site of the apparitions could not be moved) came to be now, not - as originally intended by Neumann, and according to traditional practice - in the centre of the crossing, but in the nave. Neumann answered this challenge with a brilliant solution, splitting up the room into three ovals, putting the sacred site back in the centre by making it the centre of the largest oval rotund in the middle, surrounded by four columns on each side. See the florplan:

This solution, together with the large amount of light let in by the many windows, and the spectacular stucco work executed by Franz Xaver Feuchtmayer, Johann Michael Feichtmayr and Johann Georg Üblher create a singualrly festive, uplifting and simply transporting interior, which has justly been called "God's Ballroom".

As one approaches the Basilica (it was elevated to the status of a Basilica minor as only the second German church by Leo XIII in 1897), one sees the glorious late baroque facade built in the wonderful local sandstone with its very appealing warm hue (as always, click on my pictures for larger versions):

Above the door, the arms of our Holy Father Pope Benedict:

And then one enters God's Ballroom:

The altar of grace (Gnadenaltar) or shrine proper. On this altar - and thus ad orientem - Mass is usually celebrated. From the (liturgical) West:

Normally, the space beneath the baldachin would give free the view to the high altar, but since I was there in May, it was taken by a statue of Our Lady the Queen of May, and decked out in flowers (the tradition of the May altar is very much alive in Germany). On the top you see the Divine Child of the apparition (with the red cross on the chest). Sitting to His side on the baldachin are St. Margaret to the left (see her attribute, the dragon, in German Wurm) and St. George to the right. Sitting on the volutesn are St. Giles (left, abbot with a hind) and St. Eustace (right, with a stag).

A close-up of the the Divine Child at the top:

From the North:

To the left (the statues on the right we have already seen on the previous picture to the left) on the baldachin St. Vitus (look sharply for his rooster) and on the volute St. Achatius (with Cross and crown of thorns). On the altar St. Barbara with Host and chalice.

From the South:

To the right (here we have already seen the statues on the left on the first picture of the altar to the right) on the baldachin St. Pantaleon (look with his hands nailed to his head) and on the volute St. Christopher. On the altar St. Catherine with her wheel at her feet.

So far we have only seen ten of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. The other four are represented on the pillars of the altar rails. St. Blaise with the candles:

St. Denis carrying his head (note the little fountain of blood springing up from his throat):

St. Cyriacus (deacon with a bound dragon, note the prominent maniple):

Of the last of the Fourteen Holy Helper, St. Erasmus, I have no close up, but you can see him with his windlass to the right of this shot, which also allows us a first glance at the high altar:

Before we have a closer look at the high altar, however, we turn around to look at the altar of grace from the East:

Behind the grille (before which, as you can see, a lot of candles are placed by the faithful), underneath the altar of grace which serves as a baldachin for it, and at the very centre of the Basilica is the original spot of the apparition, with the earth visible below the floor level. It is marked by a silver star modeled after the one at the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem (where our Holy Father prayed today), its fourteen rays being especially appropriate here. Whereas the star in Bethlehem reads "HIC DE VIRGINE MARIA JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS EST" ("Here was born Jesus Christ from the Virgin Mary"), the star of the apparition at Vierzehnheiligen says "IN MEDIO XIV AUXILIATORUM JESUS CHRISTUS HIC APPARUIT 1446" ("Here appeared amid the Fourteen Helpers Jesus Christ in 1446", the scaffolding tubes are merely temporary).

Now then we come to the high altar, with the Assumption of Our Lady. The Sanctuary is decorated for Eastertide (note the statue of the Risen Saviour atop the tabernacle):

Some of the marvelous ceiling frescoes by Giuseppe Appiano. The fresco of the main cupola above the altar of grace, showing the Fourteen Holy Helpers, Saints Henry and Cunegond, and the Blessed Virgin adoring the Most Holy Trinity:

All the ceiling frescoes have as subjects visions or apparitions. Here is my personal favourite, the Dream of Jacob, above one of the side altar in the main rotunda:

Ceiling of the Southern side apse:

The pulpit:

One of the side altars of the main altar, showing the Stigmatisation of St. Francis (since the early 19th century, the church is under the charge of the Franciscans):

A confessional; through the doorway, you can see a room where votive offerings are kept:

Previous entries of the Bamberg series:

A Piece of Heaven on Earth: Bamberg

The Church of St. Getreu

House Shrines, Wayside Crosses and Easter Wells

Banz Abbey

St. Michael's Abbey

More recent articles:

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