Saint Barbara: The Iconography

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

The traditional iconography of St. Barbara arises from a vita composed, probably as a retelling, by John the Stylite in the 8th century.1 From this comes her most common attribute, a tower with three windows. Sometimes the three windows will be in addition to others, as in the picture at right. Often they will be the only three (example). Until after the Council of Trent the saint was also often shown with a chalice and host, as at right. Less often, a canon will be one of the attributes. The chalice and canon also derive from the story John tells in his vita:
A wealthy pagan keeps his daughter Barbara in a tower. While he is away she has workmen add a third window. 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 the father behead her. After he does he is abruptly consumed by a fire from Heaven.
The canon attribute refers to Barbara's patronage of the profession of artillerymen, the fire they visit on their targets being similar to the one that ended the father's life. The chalice represents the "last rites" that prepare the dying Christian for Heaven and that the father never received. It refers 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 also exactly the same in John the Stylite.)

Despite its origin in the first millenium, Barbara's legend remained obscure until the fifteenth century. After the sixteenth it lapsed again into obscurity in the West, and ecclesiastical demand for St. Barbara images tapered off drastically.2

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). 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 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).

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.)

PORTRAITS

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).5

We see the chalice often in the century before Trent (example), but in 1576 Molanus condemned it as a promise of cheap grace, citing a recent decree by the Council of Cambrai.6 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).7

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 right 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.

Prepared in 2013 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-08-30, 2017-02-12.

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This portrait of the saint in the cen­ter panel of the Pal­azzo Bel­lomo Altar­piece of St. Bar­bara has all five of her most com­mon attri­butes: the tower with three win­dows, the cha­lice with the host, the canon, the palm branch, and the crown. (For the whole altar­piece see the descrip­tion page.)


The judge orders Barbara's breasts cut off. Detail from a Fin­nish altar­piece of St. Bar­bara's Pas­sion. Be­fore the Coun­cil of Trent it was com­mon to dis­play her naked­ness in por­tray­ing this epi­sode. (See the de­scrip­tion page for de­tails or this page to view the en­tire altar­piece.)


Barbara is beheaded by her father on orders from the judge. (See the description page.)

MORE IMAGES

  • 8th century: A fresco in Santa Maria Antiqua with none of the attributes that will be seen in later works, just a hand cross to signify martyrdom.
  • late 14th/early 15th century: Manuscript illustration by the Limbourg brothers.
  • Late 19th/early 20th century: Statue in a Canadian church.
  • 17th or 18th century: Statues of St. Barbara and St. Margaret.
  • 20th century: This playful take on Barbara's iconography replaces the tower with the Empire State Building.

DATES

  • St. Barbara's feast day, December 4, was suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church in 1969

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • An 8th-century account by John the Stylite is in Select Narratives of Holy Women, 77-84.
  • The Golden Legend does not mention Barbara but Caxton adds a "Life of St. Barbara" to his translation of the Legend: html or pdf.

NOTES

1 Butler, IV, 488. Lewis, 77-84.

2 As 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.

3 Molanus, II, 102 ff.

4 See Winstead, 161f, on the 15th-century Lyf of Seynt Katerine. Like the Lyf, Caxton's version from the same century has Catherine discuss the marriage question with her family "meekly" and "with a sad countenance."

5 Places named for St. Barbara are found in the United States, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines and Venezuela (Wikipedia, s.v. "Saint Barbara: Patronage"). 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."

6 Molanus 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."

7 The numerous online stores offering Roman Catholic goods often feature images of St. Barbara with the chalice. 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.