This study presents the first in-depth analysis of the cult of the Virgines Capitales in late medieval Germany. Devotion to the four capital virgins—Saints Barbara, Catherine, Margaret, and Dorothy—thrived in the Germanic territories during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The four virgin martyrs’ widespread popularity is evidenced by a mass in their honor in the Cologne Missal (the “Missa de sanctis quatuor virginibus capitalibus”), a literary tradition of the saints’ passions (the Passienbüchlein von den vier Hauptjungfrauen), and a vast number of surviving visual images that range from altarpieces to devotional paintings and prints. This study traces the origins and development of the cult, and will argue that devotion to the Virgines Capitales was in response to the four saints’ powers of collective intercession, derived not only from their individual powers, but also from their combined sexual purity, which made them Christ’s brides, and thus especially effective intercessors.
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