Saint Barbara

by nike, November 20, 2015
Saint Barbara. c1420. French. Oak.

Saint Barbara. c1420. French. Oak. The statue was once brightly coloured/painted. Traces of red paint on her dress highlight her status as a martyr of the Christian faith. In this image, you can see the characteristic S-curve typical of the Beautiful or International style of the 1400s.

A beautiful oak carving of Saint Barbara was purchased by the NGV in 1945, the last year of the war. She was first put on display in the Buvelot Gallery in February, 1946. In the National Gallery of Victoria’s quarterly bulletin (Volume II, No I, 1946) Daryl Lindsay* writes:

The French saint … is sophisticated in treatment, and the emotional appeal comparatively slight. The face, hands and feet are individual and full of style, and the whole conception far less stark and simple than that of the German religious figures. Notice particularly the carving of the hair, the head ornament, the delicate little hand, which already hint at the far more elaborate and realistic period which this type of carving was soon to enter. Formerly in a well-known European collection, and subsequently transported to America, little is known of the history of our St. Barbara, except that experts fix her date as somewhere about the beginning of the Fifteenth Century.
Saint Barbara, whose symbol is a tower with three windows, is often equated with the fairytale heroine Rapunzel. According to the story, Barbara was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Dioscorus. Her father was so concerned that she be kept safe and innocent that he kept her locked up in a tower. Her food, clothes and other necessities were delivered by a basket attached to the end of a rope. As she drew close to marriageable age, her father bought suitors to visit her, but she rejected each of them. One day, a stranger placed a book about the new religion of Christianity in the basket. Barbara became a devout Christian, and continued to refuse all the pagan suitors her father brought to the base of the tower.
Detail showing the beautiful

Detail showing some of the beautiful detail of the statue, including the folds of the gown at the neckline, the pages of the book, and the ‘delicate hand’ noted by Daryl Lindsay.

Barbara fell ill with longing to embrace the Christian faith. Her father, concerned at her failing health, delivered a physician to the room at the top of the tower, but the physician was a doctor of the soul, not of the body. He gave Barbara instruction, and baptised her in the name of the father, son and holy spirit.

Barbara’s father, unaware of the change in his daughter’s religious affiliation, was planning a business trip. Before he went, he asked the workmen on his estate to instal a window in his daughter’s tower, so that she might look for him on the road. Barbara, however, asked the workmen to instal not one, but three windows. When her father returned, he asked his daughter the meaning of her interference and she, finally, confessed her faith, saying that the three windows were to remind her of the three names of God. (This remodeling of the original simple design of her prison earned Barbara the honour of being the patrons saint of architects).
Barbara’s father drew his sword (one imagines the extraordinarily beautiful Barbara cowering on her knees) and prepared to behead his wilful daughter. But his blow fell on absence. A hole was blasted in the wall of the tower room and Barbara was magically transported to a distant mountain, where she was guarded by two shepherds. Barbara’s father pursued her into the mountains; he was turned away by the first shepherd, but the second shepherd betrayed her. As punishment, he was turned to stone, and his sheep were transformed into locusts.
Barbara's exquisite face. Barbara was said to be a very beautiful daughter. This is one of the r

Barbara’s exquisite face, with its high brow. Barbara was said to be a very beautiful daughter. This is one of the reasons her father imprisoned her in the power. Note the long hair (by which her father grasped her when he finally executed her) and the detail of the head piece.

Barbara was dragged back to the prefecture and held to trial by the prefect, Martinianus. She was paraded naked through the town, but the angels concealed her in a mystical fog. She was tortured each day, but overnight all of her horrific wounds healed. She was bound and stripped to be burned at the stake, but the torches were blown out by the breath of the angels. Each injury and attempt on her life that she survived only made the lady more radiant. Finally, in a rage, her father grasped Barbara’s long, golden hair, and hacked off her head.

Bright flames exploded out of Barbara’s dead body, consuming her flesh. Her father, however, did not get away unscathed. On the way home from his daughter’s beheading, he was struck by lightning.
As well as being the patron saint of architects, Barbara is also the patron saint of artillerymen, miners and anyone else who works with cannons or explosives.
The NGV also has on display a beautiful tortoiseshell crucifix which contains, preserved behind rock-crystal viewing windows and delicately labelled, relics, all bones, from the bodies of a number of saints, including our Barbara, as well as the apostle Bartholomew, and various other martyred saints.
Detail of the tower, showing the three windows Barbara had installed to remind her of the 'three names of God'. The tower also serves a structural purpose in the statue.

Detail of the tower, showing the three windows Barbara had installed to remind her of the ‘three names of God’. The tower also serves a structural purpose in the statue.


Tortoiseshell and rock crystal crucifix (reverse side) displaying a relic (bone) from Saint Barbara.

Tortoiseshell and rock crystal crucifix (reverse side) displaying a relic (bone) from Saint Barbara.

*(Sir Ernest) Daryl Lindsay (1889-1976) was director of the NGV between 1942 and 1956.


    • Replay Cancel Replay
    • December 9, 2015

    I loved seeing this with you. She is stunning!

      • Replay Cancel Replay
      • December 9, 2015

      She is a beautiful carving. I try to visit her whenever I'm in town ????

Leave a Reply

Subscribe now!

Enter your email address to subscribe to perilous adventures and receive notifications of new posts by email.