MS M.917/945, pp. 298–299

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St. Barbara

The Netherlands, Utrecht
ca. 1440
7 1/2 x 5 1/8 inches (192 x 130 mm)

Purchased on the Belle da Costa Greene Fund with the assistance of the Fellows, 1963

MS M.917/945, pp. 298–299

Barbara stands beside her attribute, the tower in which her cruel father, Dioscorus, shut her to prevent the attentions of suitors. In her captivity Barbara secretly converted to Christianity and built three windows, representing the Trinity, into the tower walls. Her disgruntled father ensured her martyrdom by personally beheading her. Here, Barbara is crowned with flower buds and clothed regally in a gold brocade garment beneath an ermine-trimmed blue dress. Because of associations between her birthplace of Heliopolis and the phoenix and between the phoenix and the peacock, one of her attributes is a peacock feather, which is lightly grasped in her left hand. The tower motif is repeated in the floor tiles. In the border hunches a spiny porcupine, which may represent Barbara's patronage of diverse trades involving hairs and bristles.


Suffrages are short prayers to individual saints. As protectors of medieval people, saints were their doctor in plague, their midwife at childbirth, their guardian when traveling, and their nurse during toothache. If the Virgin was the figure to whom one addressed the all-important petition for eternal salvation, it was from saints that one sought more basic or temporal kinds of help. While the Virgin became, as the Mother of God, almost a goddess herself, saints retained more of their humanity and thus their approachability.


Image courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern