In Nicomedia, the passion of St. Barbara, virgin and martyr. During the persecution of Maximin, after a grievous imprisonment, torture with torches, the removal of her breasts, and other torments, she attained martyrdom by the sword. – Roman Martyrology for December 4
In the 8th century John the Stylite composed a Syriac life of St. Barbara, apparently based on earlier works.1 The story remained obscure until the fifteenth century, when Barbara emerged as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. In the story, Dioscorus, a wealthy pagan, keeps his daughter Barbara in a tower. While he is away she has workmen add a third window in honor of the Trinity. When he returns, he flies into a rage, pursues Barbara into the hills, captures her, and sends for a judge. She refuses to recant, so the judge orders various tortures and finally has Dioscorus behead her. He does, and is thereupon consumed by a fire from Heaven.
After the sixteenth century ecclesiastical demand for St. Barbara images tapered off drastically.2 Thus most of the images on this page are from around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Artworks from these centuries often present the story episodically in predellas (example) or altarpieces (example). Like the second picture at right, they are usually explicit about the nakedness involved in Barbara's tortures, a feature that did not survive the Tridentine reforms. In his influential elaboration of the decrees of Trent, John Molanus strongly condemned all "lascivious" images in churches and even in private homes.3 Clearly, images of a naked woman tortured and paraded through the streets fell under this stricture, and to my knowledge no more such images were created after Trent. We do see one Baroque-era statue in Pamplona of St. Barbara, or perhaps another female martyr, with the bodice folded back to show where her breast had been removed, but otherwise in sanctioned church art Barbara has only the slightest décolletage (example).
A further consideration may have worked against the story in both the art and the hagiography. Virgin-martyr stories are inherently anti-authoritarian. Young women take a stand against constituted authorities and often against their families as well. Some hagiography in the late middle ages sought to de-emphasize this challenge to authority by making the saint a dutiful daughter. In two late lives of St. Catherine, for example, her refusal to marry is carefully and respectfully discussed with her family.4 But Barbara's father is too unnatural for such a rewriting, so in an age terrified by rebelliousness there may have been no alternative for artists but to ignore the full form of the story and even avoid the story itself. At any rate, after Molanus there are fewer narrative images, and they focus on the beheading (example).
Caxton's "Life of St. Barbara" closes with a curious postscript about "a noble man called Valentine" who buried Barbara and her martyred companion Juliana "in a little town in which many miracles were showed." The miracles appear to be the point of this painting of the sick and the lame approaching a dead Barbara enshrined on a catafalque. (Juliana, a prominent figure in the 8th-century version, is completely absent from this and all other Western images.)
The Tower with Three Windows
St. Barbara's most common attribute is the tower with three windows, as in the 14th-century image at right and this one from the 15th. Sometimes the three windows will be in addition to others, as in the picture at right. Often they will be the only three (example). The tower is an easily recognizable image and a handy identifier in the many late- and post-medieval images that present an array of virgin martyrs (example) or arrange them around the Virgin and Child (example).
The Chalice and Host
In the century before the Counter-Reformation a second attribute was a chalice with a host, as at right and in this example. It symbolized the Last Rites The sacrament in which sick persons who are near death are anointed and given the Eucharist. In modern times it is called "The Sacrament of the Sick" and not reserved exclusively to those who are about to die. and referred to Barbara's final prayer for all those who "have memory of thy name and my passion, I pray thee that thou wilt not remember their sins." (Quoting from Caxton, but the second clause is exactly the same in John the Stylite.) But in 1576 Molanus condemned the chalice as a promise of cheap grace, citing a recent decree by the Council of Cambrai.5 After that, the chalice appears only rarely in sanctioned Catholic art (possible exception), although it is seen even today in unofficial items and in Orthodox and Anglican contexts (example).6
A third attribute is a canon. Barbara is the patron saint of artillerymen, because the fire they visit on their targets is like the fire from above that ended the life of her father.
Sometimes an image will picture Barbara with a sword, the instrument of her martyrdom (example).
Attributes of the Virgin Martyr
Like other virgin martyrs St. Barbara is usually pictured with blond hair, a palm branch, and often a crown (example).
Even without the gruesome narrative images, St. Barbara continues through the centuries in portraits (example from the 21st century), in place-names, and of course in a Christian name that countless parents have chosen for their daughters (1,431,270 since 1880 in the United States alone).7
Prepared in 2013 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-08-30, 2017-02-12, 2017-12-09, 2018-11-28, 2021-01-12.