Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Statue of Saint Barbara

The legend of Saint Barbara:
Saint Barbara was an early Christian martyr and saint of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. According to 7th century legend, Saint Barbara was the daughter of a pagan named Dioscorus who had her imprisoned in a tower to isolate her from the outside world. While imprisoned, Barbara secretly took communion and converted to Christianity. During one of her father’s absences, she ordered workmen to install a third window in her tower, creating a symbol of the Holy Trinity. Upon his return, Dioscorus was so enraged at his daughter’s conversion that he turned her over to the Roman authorities who relentlessly tortured her. During her torture, miracles such as the nightly healing of her wounds and the extinguishing of the torches used to burn her were said to have occurred.  Unable to force her to rescind her faith, the authorities sentenced Barbara to execution. Dioscorus himself is said to have beheaded her, only to be subsequently struck down by a lightning bolt.

Saint Barbara is the patron saint of artillerymen, armorers, military engineers, miners, and explosives workers. She is invoked as a protector against sudden death from lightning, fire, or explosions. Many modern artillery, engineering, and explosive ordinance military units use her image or symbols in their crests. The US Field Artillery Association maintains an Order of Saint Barbara to which especially distinguished artillerymen are inducted. Because of the lack of veracity of the 7th century legend of her martyrdom, she was removed from the Catholic Church calendar in 1969.

Her major symbol, depicted on this statue, is the three-windowed tower representing the Holy Trinity. In this piece, she holds in the right hand either a peacock plume, a symbol of her home city of Heliopolis, or a palm, a symbol of martyrdom.
She also often depicted with the communion cup and wafer, the only female saint to be depicted so.

Other depictions of Saint Barbara include a grisaille by Jan van Eyck in 1437 in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp and the Fine Arts Gallery's very own Flemish stained glass depiction of Saint Barbara circa 1500.

This piece's journey to Vanderbilt was a tragic one. After it was purchased by the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery from a seller in France in 1982, the piece was damaged during shipping due to improper packing and handling. Liability for the damage was never claimed, despite the Gallery's efforts to document the damage and contact the seller and shipping company. Damage to the statue is still visible, manifested in a crack in the left arm, missing structural elements at the top edges of the tower, and cracks on the tiara. 

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