The woman in this icon is a mysterious figure. Thought to have lived in the 3rd century, in present-day Lebanon, no reference was made to her until the 7th century and, even then, doubts continued to the present day. Yet hagiographies (biographies of the saints) continued to mention her, possibly filling in details of her life from oral histories or other sources. No one is quite sure when her story starts, but it is one common in Christendom.
The daughter of a rich pagan, Barbara was a carefully guarded girl. To preserve her from the outside world, legend states that Barbara’s father locked her in a tower, where she chose to secretly become a Christian. Barbara’s choice was dangerous in 3rd century Lebanon, as it was ruled by the Roman Empire, at the time still adhering to ancient Roman religion and persecuting Christians.
One day, Barbara’s father went on a journey. He left orders that a bath-house with two windows be erected near the tower for Barbara’s private use. While he was away, Barbara had three windows installed in the bath-house, a secret symbol of the holy trinity. When her father returned, Barbara confessed her beliefs. Enraged, her father drew a sword to kill her that very instant; Barbara immediately prayed, and she was magically transported to a mountain gorge where two shepherds watched their flock. Her father pursued her, and one of the shepherds betrayed Barbara’s location. The shepherd turned to stone, and his flock became locusts. Barbara’s father dragged her to the prefect of the province, where she was tortured repeatedly. Yet every morning, Barbara’s jailors found her wounds miraculously healed. Finally, in desperation, her father beheaded her; he was struck by lightning on the way home and his body consumed by the flame.
After burial, Barbara’s tomb became the site of miracles. A cult was established in her honor by the 9th century, once Rome had turned Christian, and she was considered one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers (whose intercession is believed to be particularly powerful). Her association with lightning led to her veneration as the patron saint of armorers, artillerymen, military engineers, miners, and others who work with explosives. In particular, she is the Patron Saint of the Gunnery Branch of the British Royal Navy, which has a saying of artillerists and gunnery officers: “Their job is to get straddles with full-gun salvoes of a reasonable spread; Saint Barbara herself arranges the hits.” She is also a patron saint of the various forces within the British, Irish, Canadian, New Zealand, and United States militaries.
In this icon, St. Barbara is shown with a feather and a crown in front of a tower. It is similar to many other icons of her, most from the Byzantine empire. The tower symbolizes that which she was held in, notably the three windows she had built in the bath-house. She also holds what is likely a peacock feather, a traditional Christian symbol of immortality (due to the belief that peacock flesh would not decay), but also a reference to Barbara’s home city of Heliopolis, known as the “city of the phoenix.” The crown is also a symbol of immortality and martyrdom, like the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ. Together, these symbols declare Barbara’s importance as a martyr and the role that the tower played in her life.
This painting is part of the C. Perry Snell collection at the Kentucky Museum, object ID 1929.5.200. If you would like to support this collection, please consider adopting this painting through a gift of $250 to the Adopt-an-Artifact program.