Barbara was the daughter of a wealthy man named Dioscorus, who kept her locked in a tower to keep her away from avid suitors — a popular motif in many morality tales. As a symbol of the Holy Trinity, Barbara had three windows added to her bathhouse, revealing to her father that she had become a Christian. Her father became enraged, forcing Barbara to flee into a cave in the mountains. She was betrayed by a shepherd and delivered to her father.

When Dioscorus reported her faith to the authorities, Barbara was condemned to death by beheading. Her father carried out the execution, only to be struck by lightning on the way home in divine retribution. This is one among a multitude of filicides committed throughout the ages. Barbara became the patron saint of those threatened by sudden death, especially miners (referring to the cave) and artillerymen (referring to the lightning), and the patron saint of architects and masons (her tower).

The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1510, Oil on wood, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1510, Oil on wood, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Barbara is usually depicted with her tower in art works, as she is in The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara. In this painting, Barbara is luxuriously dressed and seems to accept her fate as she kneels before her father’s sword. Her bright red dress may allude to her father’s rage, and her hands clasped as if in prayer indicate she was likely praying as she died. Those gathered around the scene seem concerned, but do nothing to stop her father from wielding his sword against his daughter. They are, perhaps, Roman authorities who had tortured her and sentenced her to death.

Lucas Cranach the Elder maintained a German workshop that produced over five decades of art and commissioned pieces. This violent piece was commissioned for the Rehm family of Augsburg, as their coat of arms is located in the lower right corner. It is unknown why the painting was commissioned, but speculated that it may have been for Lucas Rem in honor of his wife Anna’s relatives named Barbara.


Order of Saint Barbara Medallion, 2007, Wikicommons.

Because of the manner of her father’s demise, Saint Barbara is associated with lightning, fire, and explosions. For this reason, she is the patron saint of artillery and mining. The Order of Saint Barbara is an honorary military society that members of the United States Marine Corps and United States Army can join. The medallion shown here is an example of that which members receive when they are inducted into the Order.

The medallion is initially attached to a red ribbon. On one side there is a cannon, and on the other a likeness of Saint Barbara standing by a tower with three windows. The medallion is worn with the canon side facing the chest and the bust of Saint Barbara facing out at Artillery functions such as Saint Barbara’s Day celebrations.

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