Ghirlandaio has a very demure picture of St. Barbara holding her tower. Then you notice she’s standing on a corpse.
Yeah, she’s doing her military saint gig.
Legend has it that God smote down her pagan father with lightning for imprisoning and martyring her. Thus her work as patron of artillerymen, et al. Later versions of the legend often reinterpret pagan as paynim, making Barbara’s dad look Muslim by giving him a Persian-looking helmet. Ghirlandaio uses such an Eastern helmet here, also.
Another popular one was depicting her holding a chalice with the Host suspended over it. Much more peaceful.
But be sure to check out this huge wallpainting of Stories of St. Barbara by Lorenzo Lotto. Holy cow, look at that beautiful marketplace! You could go there tomorrow and recognize people! Also, it is not everyday, outside of a comic book, where you see scenes of the watching cloud of witnesses shooting out of someone’s hand.
UPDATE: However, she’s not just for pre-moderns and Catholics. Behold, the American military honor society, the Order of Saint Barbara, which has its own medallion and everything. Also, there’s the Order of Saint Maurice for infantry guys, the Order of Saint Martin for quartermasters, the Saint George Award for tankers and the Order of Saint Joan d’Arc for their spouses…. Awesome stuff I’d never heard about!
Also, loukoumades (honey puffs – you’ve probably had them at Greek restaurants) are served on her feastday in Greece by the artillery guys, under the theory that they look like cannonballs.
Check out this Durer altarpiece! (Click for bigger size.)
I am not kidding about the “hardbitten” thing. It looks like St. George and St. Eustace have been riding all day, want a beer bad, and wouldn’t be above a brawl in the tavern if anybody gives them reason. Check out St. Eustace’s riding boots; even they say the same thing. And check out that dragon… or rather, that ex-dragon!
Apparently, somebody named Paumgartner must have told Durer they didn’t want any wimpy-looking saints, and he must have taken it as a challenge….
The altarpiece was commissioned by a couple of Paumgartner brothers (not the religious kind) who had just come back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and wanted to make a thank-offering. I don’t know why they went to Jerusalem (I hope they didn’t murder anybody in a tavern brawl!), but apparently the dangers of the journey didn’t make them look much like St. Francis. Anyway, Durer did something radical and modelled St. George after Stephan Paumgartner and St. Eustace after Lukas Paumgartner; their whole family is depicted as a group elsewhere on the altarpiece, in the corners of the Nativity panel in the center. Mom could take somebody out, with those rosary beads. But actually, in closeup it looks like Lukas had a softer side, which is probably why Durer is a great artist and I’m not.
It’s weird to see the Nativity from behind, isn’t it?
In On the Strong Woman, when St. Albert begins his chapters with a discussion of the “meaning” of the letters, the nonstandard meanings were not just pulled out of his monkish backside. They are perfectly accurate citations of Hebrew words which are spelled the same way, except for the vowels that didn’t come into Hebrew spelling. So “Beth” does mean “house”, but citing the meanings of “daughter” (“bat”) and “measure” (“bath”, which became Greek “batous”), are also correct. They are all spelled B-T.
(Or since Hebrew is written right to left, T-B.)
Sigh. Sometimes I am really dense. But in my defense, I think of “aleph” as meaning “ox”. I don’t know why “ox” isn’t cited; maybe because this is a text about a woman. (I probably should look up other acrostic poems in St A’s psalm commentaries.) But sure enough, “elluph” is about a leader or teacher (and I might have translated the Latin wrong, there), and also means “one thousand”. So yeah, the man knows what he’s doing, even if he only knows it from some other book by St. Jerome or St. Augustine, or from the Glosses.
The melancholy certainty comes upon me that ‘what medieval Catholic scholarship knew about Hebrew’ is the sort of Useful Thing I might have learned in college, had I taken the right classes or read the right books. Sigh. Well, you never know what you might need.
Anyway, I apologize to all the readers out there for this lapse in accurate translation. I will repair it as soon as possible.