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Barbara the foreigner

· ​The saint of the month ·

There must have been something extraordinarily hard and tough, almost stubborn, in the temperament of this girl of whose origins and life we know so little – she is thought to have been born in Nicomedia, Bithynia, but later moved with her family to the environs of Rieti, still today truly an unusual journey – just imagine what it must have been like in the third to fourth centuries. Her name too intrigues us. “Barbara” in fact comes straight from the Greek [barbaros], as we know, and in the Latin language it similarly means “foreigner”: thus we like to think that her name also alludes in a certain way to an innate, spiky difference, to an almost savage desire not to give in, to resist. First and foremost by being basically herself.

School of Parmigianino (1522)

Barbara was indeed herself in many ways. Since she was extremely beautiful, her father – tradition has it – had a tower built in which to enclose her and thus safeguard the girl from the wiles of the many suitors whom she had obstinately rejected. This time she yielded to her father, but took with her numerous books, asking in addition that three windows should be made in the tower: already a devout reference to the Trinity, as the hagiographer maintains. Perhaps. However, her reading, said to have been mainly texts by Origen, must certainly have been more significant. Indeed it was also thanks to these books that Barbara became a Christian. Recognizable here are the features of a historical itinerary typical of early Christianity, a religion which spread rapidly, particularly among women of the upper classes of imperial Roman society – should we not recall here that not all men and especially not all women could read at that time? – who were almost always against fathers, their existing husbands or the suitors for their hands. And frequently they led both husbands and suitors on the path towards the new life.

However, this was not Barbara’s case. In fact when she sought to have herself baptized her father Dioscorus took her decision very badly and, having endeavoured to prevent her doing so in hundreds of ways, denounced her to the authorities in a terrible act of rage. It was the beginning of her calvary. After Barbara had refused to recant, she was subjected to a series of tortures, worthy of the most terrifying catalogue of horrors, which culminated in the amputation of her breasts. In bearing these tortures the young woman showed her indomitable metal and her faith: she heroically resisted all the torments until Dioscorus himself, who must have been so fanatical a pagan as to arouse envy in a modern jihadist of the Isis, grasped his sword and cut off his daughter’s head. However at this point the Lord, as if taking up the challenge, turned him to ashes with a bolt of lightning.

Thus after the tower came the lightning; and against this background, a courage and tenacity unequalled in a woman, at least according to the opinion of that epoch. The specific apotropaic vocation of Barbara’s holiness had found its constitutive elements which, however, would probably not alone have been enough: it took history to do the rest.

History itself tells us that the cult of Barbara spread rapidly from the 7th century, especially in the Byzantine East and in its Church. This was not by chance. Byzantium was in fact not only a Christian state but was also the first state to be involved in war operations on a huge scale. In the Italian peninsula they fought against Franks and Lombards in order to maintain an outpost of Romanitas; then in the East against the semi-nomadic peoples coming from the Asian steppes and oppressing the Balkans: and lastly, a little later, to confront Arab expansionism in the South and in the West. In short, this was a state of continuous war, to support which its armies needed divine protection like few others. Byzantium stood in need of holy warriors.

But how could these be found in the Christian tradition of a religion which preached gentleness and love par excellence and which had arisen in opposition to all forms of violence? It was not easy; to express it as best we can, it required the working of the imagination to integrate the resources of metaphor and symbology into reality: thus in a sense the events of St Barbara’s life were created deliberately and the fact that she was a woman could hardly be considered an obstacle. Might not the Christians always have been accustomed to invoking the Virgin Mary in times of danger, to ask for the help of the Mother of God? Christianity was certainly not an alien religion and even less was it hostile to women.

Francisco Goya y Lucientes “St Barbara” (c. 1773)

Barbara’s conversion occurred in a tower – in her iconography this was in fact to become her principal symbol – in other words, in what is perhaps the most typical element of fortifications and hence of sieges, a classic emblem of the ability to resist, to hold fast, to confront, even against an overwhelming multitude. Was not the Holy Virgin too perhaps also invoked as turris eburnea, turris Davidica? As if this was not enough, the Lord had shown his favour to Barbara with the bolt of lightning which sets ablaze and reduces to ashes. Indeed, must not the Byzantine fleets have owed so many of their victories precisely to Greek fire, that mixture of pitch and sulphur known to them alone, with which they set enemy ships on fire?

Hence Barbara’s holiness had found its charisms and it devotees in the Byzantines’ defensive constructions, their work with the pick-axes, their getting to grips with everything that flares up and burns, that suddenly explodes and just as suddenly kills, and lastly, wars at sea. Miners, sappers, firemen and sailors embarked on warships whose most dangerous premises are the ship’s magazine where ammunition and explosives are stored, still known today in Italian as the “santabarbara”, in an implicit invocation of an ever timely heavenly protection.

But just as at first history had helped her in this way, history too was destined to play Barbara a bad turn. Times change as we know, and as the 20th century and the affirmation of universal hostility advanced towards the war –in which experiences were notoriously somewhat different – for holy warriors such as Barbara things became ever more difficult. In 1969, because of her rather dubious origins, she was struck off the Roman Calendar, although not off the list of saints. Thus, at the moment when ugly smoke is about to invade your bedroom, address even a small thought to St Barbara, listen to her. I am sure it will do you no harm.

Ernesto Galli della Loggia


Ernesto Galli della Loggia

A historian and columnist of Corriere della Sera, he has never been concerned with the subjects of women or saints. He is the author of many books, including L’identità italiana (il Mulino, 2010); his latest work, Credere vivere tradire (il Mulino, 2016), is the partly autobiographical story of 50 years of political life.




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 22, 2020