Saint Barbara, France, Normandy, c. 1520 – 1540
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Saint Barbara

Saint Barbara

Oak, with original polychrome and gilding
France, Normandy, c. 1520 – 1540

Dimensions

Height
57.5 cm; 1 ft. 10⅔ in.
Width
19 cm; 7½ in.
Depth
11.5 cm; 4½ in.

Provenance

Private collection, France

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.