Memorial of Saint Barbara

December 4th 2014

Jan Van Eyck (Maaseik 1390 – Bruges 1441), Saint Barbara, 1437,
 drawing on table, cm 31x18, Anversa, Museum Royal Beaux Arts


Barbara, virgin and martyr who lived in the second half of the third century, is a saint whose cult spread both in the West and in the East since ancient times although we have very little news of her life. Around her, many stories were born that have enriched the iconography and worship.

Barbara's father, Dioscorus, built a tower to lock and protect the beautiful daughter requested for marriage by many suitors. She, however, had no intention of getting married but she wanted to devote herself to God. Before entering the tower, not yet baptized and wanting to receive the sacrament of regeneration, she went into a pool of water near the tower and dived three times saying “Barbara baptizes herself in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” By order of her father, the tower should have had two windows, but Barbara asked for three in honor of the Trinity. Her father, a pagan, becoming aware of the Christian profession of his daughter,   decided to kill her, but she, miraculously passing between the walls of the tower, managed to escape. Captured, she was brought by her father to court for processing.

After several failed attempts to convince Barbara to renounce to her Christian faith, the prefect Marciano ordered her to be killed, but the young woman miraculously escaped from them. Finally, the prefect condemned her to be beheaded; it was her father who executed the judgment. Soon after, a fire came down from heaven and burned the cruel father, of whom not even the ashes remained.

The great Flemish painter, in the representation that we see, shows us the saint in the foreground and the tower, large and impressive, still under construction, with trifora evident. The thing that stands out is the contrast between the calm that pervades the figure of Barbara - sitting, her eyes turned to the book in her hand that she is reading and holding the palm of martyrdom, whilst the folds of her large dress seem to stress how well she is anchored to the ground - and the mess that is seen behind the saint, in the bottom, around the tower, where everything is a hive of activity.

Van Eyck, who signed and dated the work ("Johes de Eick me fecit 1437"), seems to put before our eyes  the victory of the saint who, despite her death, has been able to keep her faith. That is why we see in her beauty and her tranquility, a dimension that is already the one of God.