The very existence of this supposed virgin-martyr is doubtful. There is no trace of an ancient cult, although Barbara was alleged to have been killed in the persecution of Maximian (c.303). Her Greek Acts, notoriously unhistorical, were not written until the 7th century; even more suspicious, Nicomedia, Heliopolis, Tuscany, and Rome all claimed to be the place of her death. This uncertainty did not prevent her cult becoming very popular in the later Middle Ages, especially in France.
The Golden Legend tells of how she was shut up in a tower by her father Dioscorus, so that no man should see her. None the less princes sought her hand in marriage. She became a Christian while her father was away and decided to live as a hermit in a bath-house he had built. Here she made the workmen add a third window in honour of the Holy Trinity. In his fury at her becoming a Christian, he nearly killed her, but she was handed over to a judge who condemned her to death. Her father was struck by lightning and died. This was the basis of her patronage of those in danger of sudden death, first by lightning, and then by subsiding mines or cannon-balls. Hence her patronage of miners and gunners.
The first known representation of her is an 8th-century fresco at S. Maria Antiqua, Rome; she is found, often with the equally mythical Margaret of Antioch, on late medieval English screens and stained glass. Her usual emblem is a tower. The painting of her by Jan van Eyck in the Royal Museum at Antwerp is probably the most famous representation.
Feast: formerly 4 December, suppressed in the Roman calendar of 1969.
Text of her Acts in P.G., cxvi. 301–16 and ed. A. Smith-Lewis in Studia Sinaitica, ix (1900), 101–10 and x (1900), 77–84 (Eng. tr.);B. de Gaiffier, ‘La légende latine de sainte Barbe par Jean de Wackerzeele’, Anal. Boll., lxxvii (1959), 5–41.
Subjects: Christianity — Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).