Santa Bárbara
by Paul Rhetts

Santa Bárbara is the sixteen most frequent historic image in the santos of New Mexico (from 1700 to 1900) according to research completed on the frequency of images in New Mexican santos by the author and funded by the Kriete Family Foundation.

Memorial or Feast Day
December 4

Story or Legend
Legend, originating in the tenth century or so, has it that Bárbara lived in the third century. She was the daughter of a rich man/king named Dioscorus, who lived during the reign of Maximian. It is said that she was very beautiful and that her father had a tower built to house her so that he could control any suitors. Many a prince came and asked for her hand, but she refused them all. She converted to Christianity and told her father that she was to be married to her faith. While her father was away on a trip, she had workmen build her a third window in the tower. Upon his return her father questioned Barbara about the new window whereupon she replied that the new window was built in honor of the Holy Trinity. Infuriated, her father drew his sword to slay her and demanded that she renounce her faith. She refused and he cut off her head, whereupon lightning stuck and killed him.
The very existence of this supposed virgin-martyr is doubtful. There is no trace of an ancient cult, although she 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 claim to be the place of her death. This certainly did not prevent her cult becoming very popular in the later Middle Ages, especially in France.

Against lightning and tempests; invoked for fire protection; patron of those in danger of sudden death, first by lightning, and then by subsiding mines or cannon-balls. Since the 15th century she has also been the patron of various occupations including architects, builders, founders, gunners, miners, and stone masons. Protector against sudden death and death without sacraments, a reference to her holding the custodia of the Eucharist. Her cult intensified in Europe in the 15th century. Her devotion was brought to the Americas by the Mercedary Order.

A rhyming prayer goes as follows: "Santa Bárbara doncella, Libera nos del rayo y la centella - Holy virgin Barbara, protect us from the thunderbolt and the flash." In Spain, she is still invoked against thunder, lightning, and fires: "Cuando el trueno rugirá, Santa Bárbara nos guardara. Cuando el rayo caerá, Por donde Bárbara pasará, El rayo no caerá. - When the thunder roars, Saint Barbara guards us. When lightning comes where Barbara passes, lightning will not strike."
The first known representation of Bárbara is an eighth century fresco at Santa Maria Antigua in Rome. She is frequently depicted with Margaret of Antioch (equally mythical) on late medieval English screens and stained glass. A painting by Jan van Eyck (1437) in the Royal Museum at Antwerp is probably the most famous representation of her. The chapel of Sainte Barbe au Faouët was built in 1489 and the Capilla del Condestable in the Burgos Cathedral contains a 15th century wooden statue of her.

In New Mexico, there are some fifty-three historic santos (prior to 1900) identified as Santa Bárbara. These santos were made by the following santeros: Laguna Santero (5), José Aragon (5), School of Laguna Santero (4), Pedro Antonio Fresquis (3), Molleno (2), School of José Aragon (2), 18th Century Novice (2), don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco (2), José Rafael Aragon (2), AJ Santero (2), Santo Niño Santero (2), José de Gracia Gonzales (2), Provincial Academic (1), Quill Pen Santero (1), Arroyo Hondo Painter (1), and José Benito Ortega (1). There are twelve (12) pieces which are unidentified as to maker. Ten of the fifty-three pieces are found in altarscreen panels, a strong indicator of her importance in New Mexico.

Richly dressed princess (sometimes a blue gown embroidered with gold over a white underdress and covered by a brilliant red or crimson mantle falling from her left shoulder), wearing a crown, often with red plumes, holding a martyr's palm and a monstrance; sometimes seen with cannons and artillery at her feet; a long dress with three flounces (honoring the Trinity); a tower in the background, often with three floors and/or three windows (as symbols of Trinity - sometimes the actual Trinity appears in the clouds), and a thundercloud with lightning. Rarely, seen with a chalice or Gospel, or sword. In New Mexican retablos, the tower is in background and she is holding a monstrance in her right hand. A palm branch or a peacock feather is frequently held in her left hand. In Europe, she frequently has a spiked crown from which hangs a white veil.

There are eight recognizable scenes in which she is depicted in art in the New World: 1) Bárbara persecuted by her father, incarcerated in tower, 2) martyrdom of Bárbara, which is unique to Columbia, 3) Bárbara's decapitation, also unique to Columbia, 4) miracle of Bárbara, where two children present halo to a mestizo priest while others talk to a priest, 5) Bárbara's escape from the tower, 6) the punishment of the shepherd who showed her hiding place to her father, 7) her flagellation, and 8) the tearing out of her breasts. In New Mexico, she is always seen in the same scene, an amalgazation of several of the above scenes.

Paul Rhetts is the co-publisher of Tradición Revista.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 5, No. 2, Summer 2000.

Copyright 2000. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.