Lonely and proud on its hilltop site overlooking the Main valley on the northwestern edge of Fränkische Schweiz, the pilgrimage church of Vierzehnheiligen is one of the masterpieces of southern-German late Baroque and Rococo. Standing on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela, the church replaced an earlier structure at the place where, during 1445 and 1446, Hermann Leicht, a shepherd at the Cistercian abbey of Langheim near Lichtenfels, had visions of a crying child. The third time the child appeared to him, it was accompanied by the fourteen Holy Helpers – a group of saints whose intercession is often invoked in Catholicism – who told Leicht they wanted a chapel to be built on the site. Soon afterwards the first miracle was reported and the site became a place of pilgrimage.
Vierzehnheiligen was designed by Balthasar Neumann, the architect of Würzburg’s Residenz. Construction began in 1723 but the church was not consecrated until 1772, nineteen years after Neumann’s death. His plans were nevertheless adhered to, and the results impress long before you reach the twin-towered church, for it can be seen from a distance as you ascend from the valley.
Vierzehnheiligen is built of a particularly warm, gold-coloured stone, but even so the noble exterior is no preparation for the dazzling Rococo vision within, a symphony of white, gold and grey that is sure to lift your spirits, whatever your feelings about the legend that created it. The church is of cathedral-like proportions, its interior focused on Johann Michael Feichtmayr’s central Gnadenaltar, built on the site of Hermann Leicht’s vision and with statues of the fourteen helpers, some eye-catchingly gory: St Denis, patron saint of those with headaches, is portrayed with his head tucked under his arm; St Pantaleon, with his hands nailed to his head.