|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.
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.
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.