The Chalice and the Tower: St. Barbara in Belgium

I am always peculiarly delighted by unknown iconographic subjects.  These subjects are rarely mysteries — does any stone remained unturned in art history at this late date? — but they do remind me of the thrill of the hunt as I search for sources and explanations.

While visiting museums in Brussels, I noticed that St. Barbara was a popular subject for small wooden sculptural figures.  These figures, I subsequently learned, were normally part of a larger altarpiece and were “often scattered” when altarpieces were sold piecemeal in later centuries.  There were three different versions of St. Barbara at the Musee Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, dating from c. 1500-10, c. 1510, and c. 1530.  All three are made of polychrome wood no more than a foot high and, despite their current appearance, must have been richly finished.  As contemporary German versions of the saint are described, she is depicted as “a fair young lady in fashionable rich raiment and hair dress with the decorous bearing of a well-to-do and well-bred citizen.”  The tower has a purely symbolic function, radically scaled back and serving almost as a support — reminiscent of the tree trunks supporting Roman marble copies of original Greek bronze sculptures.  In the earlier two examples, the hand holding the chalice has been broken clean off, while the arm held tighter to the body with a book resting in the outstretched palm has survived.  The chalice, symbolic of her faith, does not seem to serve as an emblem for a particular event in her legend, unlike the female saints who are commonly shown with the instruments of their torture and martyrdom.

Several excellent examples of St. Barbara in the northern Renaissance tradition exist in American museums, and from the scant sources available on these works, I have gained a general outline of St. Barbara’s image in these centuries.  The story of St. Barbara dates from the early fourth century, but it is the account of her martyrdom in Jacopo da Voragine’s Golden Legend that, as it did for so many others, solidified and popularized her myth.  Believed to be an “Egyptian from Hellenized Heliopolis,” Barbara converts to Christianity despite the displeasure of her “pagan father, Dioscorus”, and is subsequently imprisoned in a tower.  In a move both symbolic and defiant, she commissions builders to construct a third floor (or a third window) that would represent the Trinity, serving as a beacon to the faithful.  This act of disobedience brings her father’s rage down upon her — and his sword, as she is decapitated by his hand.  In the sixteenth century, it would appear, she was most prized for her fortitude — one analysis of an Augsburg St. Barbara now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art links her classicizing attributes with the fortezza of Hercules, a strength now fully Christianized.  However, as Gomez-Moreno tells us, she had been “invoked since the ninth century for protection against lightning…became patroness of anything or anyone connected with explosives, firearms, miners, artillery, and soldiers.”  Her father, the vengeful pagan, was killed by lightning shortly after murdering his daughter.  The lightning, coincidentally a major attribute of Zeus, appears in at least one panel painting of this scene, now in the Walters Art Museum.

The Walters actually has four works depicting St. Barbara, all of which originate in either Belgium or the Netherlands.  All of these works show a tower either in the background of a static scene or as a major component of a narrative scene, unlike in Germany, where the tower is rarely treated.

A brief aside: despite the depiction of her in non-narrative images with a heavy book, there appears to be no emphasis or discussion of her scholarly learning, though that is the usual meaning of such an attribute, e.g. St. Catherine of Alexandria.  Perhaps the more literate society of northern Europe was less inclined to marvel at female learning?   That is only a guess, and not a very good one.

Female saints — rebellious and disobedient almost by definition — contain within their persons and their hagiographies so many of the conflicting ideas western society has about the role of women.  Real, composite, or purely fictitious, they can serve as models even today.  Their jarring and dissonant speech echoes down the centuries, reminding me to raise my own voice.  I would be better with an ounce of their courage.  But I would  also prefer to keep my head.

Works cited:

Gomez-Moreno, Carmen.  “Classical and Christian Symbolism: An Early Renaissance Female Saint from Augsburg.”  Metropolitan Museum Journal 19/20 (1984/1985): 31-37.

King, Edward S.  “Two Panels by the Master of the Joseph Legend.”  The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 6 (1943): 40-47.

Sterling, Charles and Edward S. King.  “A Bellegambre Triptych Reconstructed.”  The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 11 (1948): 44-49.

Swarzenski, Georg.  “St. Barbara.”  Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 44 (1946): 50-52.


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