Saint Barbara, Virgin and Martyr: The Iconography

The Barbara legend is set in the era of the pagan persecutions, but no version of it is known before the 7th century.1 Even then, the legend remained obscure until the century and a half preceding the Council of Trent (1545-63). After Trent, the story lapsed again into obscurity in the west and ecclesiastical demand for St. Barbara images tapered off drastically.2

The story is not included in the Golden Legend (circa 1260), but there is a version in Caxton's translation, written in 1483 at the height of her popularity. A wealthy pagan named Dioscorus keeps his daughter Barbara in a tower. Once while he is away she has workmen add a third window to the tower. When he returns, she has already had herself baptized and tells the father the three windows symbolize the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

When Dioscorus flies into a murderous rage Barbara escapes to the nearby hills, but with the help of a shepherd he captures her, claps her in prison, and sends for a judge. The judge, Marcianus, says she must either sacrifice to the gods or be put to death. After she makes a speech disparaging the idols he orders her disrobed and whipped.

By the next day God has healed her bruises, so Marcianus orders her hanged between two forked poles, beaten and tortured with fire, and then marched through the public streets with her breasts hacked off. Afterwards God takes
Barbara away to a high mountain, but Dioscorus follows and cuts off her head with a sword. He is then consumed into ashes by a fire from Heaven.

Narrative Images

Artworks from the 15th and 16th centuries present the episodes of the story in predellas (example), in altarpieces (example), or in a single frame (example). These are explicit about the nakedness, 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 where part of the saint's garment is folded back to show where her breast was removed, but otherwise in sanctioned church art she 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).

In the more permissive atmosphere of the present century the full form of the legend seems to be making a comeback in the west. One web site posted by the Dutch Artillery Museum retells the whole tale, though it mentions the nakedness as briefly as possible and reduces the violence considerably. And an Italian film dramatizing the saint's conversion and execution was released in 2012.5


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 in the United States since 1880).6

Like the narrative images, the portraits were also affected by post-Tridentine strictures. During the years of Barbara's popularity one of her main attributes was a chalice with the eucharistic host (example). The chalice relates to a belief that if those who are near death will recall the passions of Christ and St. Barbara they will be assured of receiving the last rites, and by implication gaining salvation. The story in Caxton refers to this, if inexplicitly, in recounting Barbara's last words:
Lord Jesu Christ . . . I beseech thee to grant me thy grace and hear my prayer, that all they that have memory of thy name and my passion, I pray thee that thou wilt not remember their sins.
We see the chalice often in the century before Trent, but in 1576 Molanus condemned it as a promise of cheap grace, citing a recent decree by the Council of Cambrai.7  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).8

Even before Trent the most common attribute in St. Barbara portraits was the tower with the three windows, as in the 14th-century image at left and in this one from the 15th. The tower is an easily recognizable image and a handy identifier in the many 15th-century paintings that present an array of virgin martyrs (example) or arrange them around the Virgin and Child (example). It continues in use after Trent (example) and into modern times.

As with the other virgin martyrs, portraits of St. Barbara usually include a palm branch and often give the saint a crown (example), despite her status in life as a commoner.

Feast day

In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church suppressed the cult of St. Barbara on the grounds that the story is most likely fictional. Before the suppression, her feast day had been December 4.

At left, a 14th-century statue of St. Barbara in the Cluny.

Other images:
A 1510 painting of the beheading
The tortures
Narrative panels from an altarpiece
"The Life of St. Barbara" in Caxton's version of the Golden Legend: html or pdf


1Butler, IV, 488.
2As an index to this rise and fall in popularity, a search on "Saint Barbara" at the Web Gallery of Art for each half-century from the 12th to the 19th yields 35 images from the years between 1401 and 1550, but only 3 before those years and only one afterwards. More images do exist from the years before and after Barbara's heyday, as the present page makes clear, but they are much rarer.
Molanus II, 102ff.
4See Winstead, 161f, on the 15th-century Lyf of Seynt Katerine. Like the Lyf, Caxton's version from the same century also has Catherine discuss the marriage question with her family "meekly" and "with a sad countenance."
5A video review of the film Saint Barbara, from the Lux Vide production company and directed by Carmine Elia, was accessible on youTube in May of 2013.
6Places named for St. Barbara are found in the United States, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines and Venezuela (Wikipedia, s.v. "Saint Barbara"). The statistic on Christian names is from Baby Names Hub. The saint's name also survives in U.S. popular culture in the Beach Boys classic tune "Barbara Ann" and in the popular children's doll named "Barbie," which ironically has often been blamed for the very type of sexist mind-set that Molanus feared. (Google yields 714,000 results for "Barbie sexist." See Wikipedia and an article in the New York Times for an overview of the debate.)
7Molanus III, 387: Pridie autem Nonas apud multos celebris est Barbara. Quae pingitur aliquando cum Calice, & Corpore Domini in manu. Constat enim multis succurrisse, ne absque Viatico, sive Sacramento Corporis Dominici, discederent. Usitatius cum Turri pingitur, & Tribus Fenestris; notissima de caussa. Nec inepte nonnuli, ut utrumque exprimant, ad ostium turris Calicem cum Corpore Domini pingunt. Quid autem hic sit vitandum, potissimum iis que scelerate vivunt, dictum est Libro secundo, ex decretis Synodi Cameracensis. ("The day before the nones [of December] is the feast of Barbara in many locales. She is sometimes painted with a chalice and the body of the Lord in her hand. She is known to have come to the aid of many people lest they depart this life without the Viaticum or the Sacrament of the Body of the Lord. More often she is portrayed with a tower and three windows. To combine the two symbols, some paint the chalice and Host at the door of a tower. This however is to be avoided, especially for those who live a sinful life, according to the second book of the decrees of the Council of Cambrai.") The Council of Cambrai issued its decrees in 1565. See John McClintock, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Volume 11, p. 748,  s.v. "Council of Cambrai."
8The numerous online stores offering Roman Catholic goods often feature images of St. Barbara with the chalice. Also compare the images provided at the Dutch Artillery Museum site mentioned above. For Orthodox and Anglican images, a Google Images search on "icons st. barbara" will yield many examples with the chalice, though the most common Orthodox attribute for St. Barbara is a long, thin cross, often Roman-style with only one cross-piece.