Archive for December 4th, 2011

Feast Day of Santa Barbara

1 comment December 4th, 2011 Headsman


Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino arrived on Dec. 4, 1602 at the California coastal plain he named Santa Barbara.
“The Ballad of St. Barbara”
by G.K. Chesterton

They are firing, we are falling, and the red skies rend and shiver us,
Barbara, Barbara, we may not loose a breath—
Be at the bursting doors of doom, and in the dark deliver us,
Who loosen the last window on the sun of sudden death.

Although the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic church has booted her from the liturgical calendar as a probable legend, this is the feast date of still-popular early Christian martyr St. Barbara.

There are a million fishy details of the story: nobody’s clear on which anti-Christian persecution claimed her; nobody’s clear on where in the Roman Empire she died; and it’s hard to keep a straight face at the clincher that her unsympathetic pagan father gets struck by lightning after her execution.

Actually, the story is practically straight out of a fairy-tale reader: nasty rich dad Dioscurus locked her up in a tower like Rapunzel, but flew into a rage when he discovered she had secretly become a Christian, and dragged her to the Roman prefect to be tortured and, eventually, beheaded. There are any number of further variations, like that mean old dad personally gave her the chop.

As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christianity’s all-star team of divine intercessors, Barbara was big on both sides of the east-west schism. She’s got saintly portfolios of special relevance to this site: she’s the patron saint of prisoners and of everyone who risks violent death at work, a rare but real occupational hazard for executioners. (We also think that her gig protecting against lightning storms might qualify Barbara for safekeeping people sentenced to die in the electric chair: maybe she saved Willie Francis.)

She’s best known as the guardian of miners and artillerists — folks who work around explosions, like Guy Fawkes — and the word santabarbara denotes a powder magazine in both Spanish and Italian.


The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1510, is clearly sensible in the swarthy, scimitar-wielding executioner of the contemporary-to-Cranach Turkish menace. (cc) image from Wally Gobetz.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Women

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