Friday, December 3, 2010

Major Barbara

Saint Barbara 50.159 Saint Barbara 37.52.1 Saint Barbara 55.166

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

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 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 Fr??hlingsbarbenkraut. 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.

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Comments (4)

  1. Jeanne Frett Says:

    RE: Dipsacus sativus- the real thing


    Did you ever find seeds of true Dipsacus sativus? I have plants from seeds purchased from Chiltern Seeds in England and am reasonably sure, based on their description, they are the real thing. Would be willing to share.

  2. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Jeanne,

    Thank you so much for your kind offer, but I do purchase seeds from Chiltern’s wonderful catalogue, which helpfully distinguishes wild forms from cultivated ones, and will try their Dipsacus sativus next year. The Dipsacus we now have in the bed devoted to plants used in medieval arts and crafts seems to be somwhere betwixt and between D. sylvestris and D. sativus. Another source I’ll try is Arne Herbs in Somerset, where dipsacus was traditionally grown for the textile industry. (Anthony Lyman-Dixon, the proprietor, specializes in medieval and Renaissance herbs, and is a valued correspondent on this blog.)

  3. Anthony Says:

    Thanks for that Deidre. Actually we supply Chiltern but not with Dipsacus. I don’t normally bother to collect the wild form, it is invasive enough without encouraging it! Anyway the birds enjoy it and given the freeze up we have just suffered, I expect they were glad of anything they could scrounge. If you would like some sylvestris, we probably have some in a jar somewhere, but true sativus, if indeed it really exists, is very rare and I am certain that the medievals would have been unable to tell the difference. I looked it up in Matteus Silvaticus and rather wished that I hadn’t. Not only does Matteus say that there are two sexes of “Virga pastoris” but in his commentary on the book Luciano Mauro quotes Mattioli in saying that Matteus had made a complete mess of it, confusing Dipsacus with Polygonum. If that wasn’t confusing enough, in her schedule of plants in Tractatus, Sandra Raphael identifies Camelleunta nigra as a Dipsacus. What a “Camelleunta” is, your guess is a good as mine. It’s normally an unpleasantly emetic thistle and so unlikely ever to be confused with anything “sativus” at least. Stannard on Alberti quotes the abbot as saying that Virga pastoris is used for carding cloth and identifies that as D. sativus whereas he identifies Alberti’s Virga pastoris masculus as D sylvestris and says that “no other medieval description is recorded” All of which makes me think that perhaps we should sort out the problems of modern Dipsacus taxonomy before we get to grips with the horrors of medieval identification. Does D sativus really exist? or is it a synonym for D fullonum? One day if I live long enough I will look in Diocorides and Mattioli myself but at the moment I have a burst water pipe to worry about

  4. Tennessee in Bloom | Higher Ground Says:

    [...] Barbara.??? The Cloisters Museum & Gardens, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2010. Available at: /cloistersgardens/2010/12/03/major-barbara/#more-6015. Accessed. March 23, 2011. Coffey T. The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers. New [...]

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