Saint Barbara, France, Lorraine, probably Nancy, late 15th century

Saint Barbara

Limestone, with original polychrome and gilt wax ‘orfrois’
France, Lorraine, probably Nancy, late 15th century


81 cm; 2 ft. 8 in.
36 cm; 1 ft. 2⅕ in.
22 cm; 8⅔ in.


Louis Bresset Collection, Paris, 1960s
Private collection, Paris

The saint standing next to her three windowed tower, with downward gaze in contemplation, wearing a decorated head dress and golden chain and crucifix around her neck, the curls of her long hair falling gracefully over her dress and red robes embroided with a band of golden thread, a chain around her waist, the Gospels in her left hand and missing attribute in the right, excellent preserved condition.

Barbara, who lived in Nicomedia, Bithynia during the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, was the beautiful intelligent daughter of Dioscorus, a wealthy pagan. Her father imprisoned her in a tower to protect her from the outside world and to preserve her virginity. He forbade her association with friends allowing contact only with teachers and servants instructed to teach the worship of pagan gods. Barbara spent years in the tower hauling her food and laundry up and down by means of a basket on a rope. One day a stranger slipped a book about Christianity into her basket and, upon reading it, she feigned sickness and sent for a doctor. The man who arrived was a priest, who secretly baptised her.

Before leaving on a trip, Dioscorus commanded that a bath-house be constructed for Barbara with two windows only. During her father’s absence, Barbara instructed the workmen to install three windows to symbolise the Holy Trinity. When Dioscorus returned, he was enraged at the change and infuriated when Barbara confessed that she was a Christian and refused an offer of marriage arranged by him. Dioscorus took her before the prefect of the province who ordered that she be paraded naked though the town. A fog rose suddenly and hid her from the crowd. The prefect then decreed that she be tortured and beheaded. Barbara refused to renounce her faith under torture, her wounds healing each morning. It was her father himself who carried out the death sentence. On his way home, a violent tempest arose. He was struck and killed by lightning and consumed by fire God had caused to descend on him.

It is due to this legend that Saint Barbara is invoked for protection against explosion and sudden death. She is venerated by Catholics who face the danger of unpredictable violent death in the workplace. She is the patron saint of artilleryman, miners, fire fighters, sailors and, because of her imprisonment, of prisoners.

The tower in which Saint Barbara was confined by her father is always associated with her in Christian art. Sometimes it appears as a building in the background. Not infrequently, she holds a miniature representation of it in her left hand. In other works, as in our example, she leans upon it. Where the tower does not appear in the left hand, its place is usually occupied, as it is here, by a copy of the Gospels. Her right hand usually holds either a palm branch or sword as a symbol of her martyrdom. The missing attribute in our example was most likely a palm branch. Saint Barbara differs from every other female saint in Christian art in that she is often depicted carrying a chalice representing the Holy Eucharist.

This late medieval composition is an outstanding representation of the legend of one of the most popular and venerated of the female saints. With her angelic face tilted, her heavily lidded eyes gaze downward in reflective contemplation. Of exceptional rarity is the state of the original gilt wax ‘orfrois’ which decorates the edges of her robes. While a distinctive part of the courtly wardrobe and repertoire, the old French term ‘orfrois’ is commonly defined within a medieval Christian context as gold embroided work or cloth of gold fastened to or embroided on liturgical vestments such as chasubles and copes. With original polychrome, this is a well preserved beautifully balanced work.

SOLD: Private collection, Belgium