Above, from left to right: Saint Barbara (detail), mid-15th century, French, Gift of Mr. Edward G. Sparrow, 1950 (50.159); Detail of Saint Barbara from The Virgin Mary and Five Standing Saints above Predella Panels, 1440–46, The Cloisters Collection, 1937 (37.52.1); Saint Barbara (detail), ca. 1490, German, The Cloisters Collection, 1955 (55.166).
Although Saint Barbara is not mentioned in early martyrologies, hagiographies place the early Christian virgin and martyr in the third century A.D. According to The Golden Legend, a popular collection of saints’ lives dating to the thirteenth century, she was martyred on the fifth of December, during the reign of Emperor Maximianus and under the orders of Martianus, the prefect of her city of Heliopolis, in Phoenicia. Veneration of Saint Barbara was common in both the eastern and western churches by the ninth century, and she remains a popular saint to this day, although her feast is widely celebrated on the fourth rather than the fifth of December.
The daughter of a wealthy pagan, Barbara was locked in a tower by her father, who sought to preserve her from contact with the world. Having secretly become a Christian, Barbara rejected the marriage her father sought to impose upon her. He then threatened her with a sword, but through her prayers an opening was made in the wall of her tower and she was miraculously transported to a mountain gorge. Betrayed by a shepherd, she was brought before Martianus and tortured for her faith. Brands used to burn her flesh were miraculously extinguished, the place in which she was imprisoned was bathed in light by night, and each morning she was discovered to have she recovered from the cruel wounds inflicted the day before. Ultimately, she was beheaded by her own father at the prefect’s command. On leaving the place of execution, her father was struck by lightning and consumed by flames as punishment. (For an English translation of the Latin text of the life of Saint Barbara from The Golden Legend, visit www.catholic-forum.com/saints/golden308.htm.)
Invoked against lightning and fire, Barbara also became the patron saint of artillerymen, miners, military engineers, and masons. As with many other important saints in the Christian calendar, a number of traditions involving plants are associated with Barbara’s feast day. Christians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine celebrate her feast with a dish known as Burbara, which consists of boiled and sweetened barley mixed with raisins, anise, and seeds of a pomegranate (for more on pomegranate, see “Immortal Fruit,” July 31, 2009). In both the Greek Orthodox and the Melkite Greek Catholic church it is also the custom to eat boiled wheat or barley on Barbara’s feast day. This ancient ritual food, transliterated from modern Greek as “koliva,” is of pre-Christian origin and derives from the panspermia (a mixture of nuts and seeds) eaten in celebration of the Anthesteria and the kykeon ritually consumed during the Eleusinian Mysteries. In Provence, wheat seeds are germinated on the feast of Saint Barbara, in a custom akin to that of the Adonis gardens of the ancient world. The height the wheat grass attains signifies the degree of prosperity to be enjoyed in the coming year.
In Austria and Catholic Germany, a branch from a cherry tree, known as a Barbarazweig (see de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbarazweig for information in German), is placed in water on her feast day. If the branch blooms on Christmas Day, it betokens good fortune in the coming year.
The botanical genus Barbarea, which contains two edible members of the mustard family, bears Barbara’s name. Barbarea vulgaris, a European species naturalized in this country (see the U.S.D.A. database for more information) and commonly known as winter cress or yellow rocket, is also known as Herba Sanctae Barbarae, herbe de la Sainte Barbe, erba di Santa Barbara, and Frühlingsbarbenkraut. Geoffrey Grigson conjectures that the fact that this cress remains green throughout the coldest months of the year accounts for its dedication to Barbara in early winter, but speculates that this tall herb may also have suggested the tower that is her emblem. The plant was eaten on Barbara’s feast day, but I have not yet been able to trace this tradition to the Middle Ages.
Bedevian, Armenag K. Illustrated Polyglottic Dictionary of Plant Names in Latin, Arabic, Armenian, English, French, German, Italian and Turkish Languages. Cairo: Argus & Papazian Presses, 1936.
Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1999.
Griffiths, Mark. The New Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.
Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987.
Small, Ernest. Culinary Herbs, 2nd edition. Ottawa: NRC Research Press, 2006.
Tags: Adonis, anise, Anthesteria, Barbarazweig, Barbarea, Barbarea vulgaris, barley, Eleusinian Mysteries, kykeon, Martianus, Maximianus, pomegranate, Provence, raisin, Saint Barbara, The Golden Legend, wheat, winter cress, yellow rocket