When I was a little girl I used to look forward to one special day soon after the first candle on the green Advent wreath had been burning. One of my grandmothers or my great-grandmother went out into our little orchard in the garden and cut a branch from the plum tree covered with hoar-frost, brought it into the house and put it into a bowl of water.
I knew the branch would blossom on Christmas Eve. I knew that it was cut in honor of a virgin, in whose dress wintry branches caught ere she was led to prison to suffer for her faith, but the branches blossomed. I had learned that she had been jealously guarded by her father and had been closed up into a tower. But she had three windows made in the wall through which light fell into her dark prison.
I am talking of St. Barbara who suffered martyrdom for her faith in the year 306 AD as the legend has it. I was spared from the details of her cruel fate. Legend tells us that she was the daughter of Dioskuros who lived in Nikomedia (today Izmit). He enclosed her into a tower to be sure that she remained untouched by men. But Barbara corresponded with Origenes and was visited by Valentinus, who gave out to be a physician. Barbara demanded to be baptized, and according to the custom of the time she had a greater basin of water built into the tower. She had also three windows made as a token of the holy trinity. Her father was outraged when she declared that she was a Christian. He wanted to kill her but she escaped through the wall opening miraculously. But she was finally caught, tortured cruelly, and beheaded by her own father. The relics of Barbara were brought to Venice around the year 1000. They were first kept at San Marco and later brought to the monastery of S. Giovanni Evangelista on the Island of Torcello close to Venice.
There are numerous folk customs which are connected with Saint Barbara. One is the cutting of Barbara-branches I have described above. I still keep to this custom of my family. If the branches are cut on the 4th they will show the first green tips on the day of solstice and the blossoms open on Christmas Eve. I lived some time close to the Rhine and there Barbara became the companion of St. Nikolaus giving presents to the children.
A verse from the 15th century reads:
Sankt Bärbel, die vermag zu stärken.
Denn wer in Ihren Diensten steht,
nie ohne Sakrament von hinnen geht.
(St Barbara, she can give strength to us. Whoever is in her service will not die without sacrament.)
She became one of the 14 saints you can call in situations of extreme danger, the 14 Holy Helpers. She is best known as the patron saint of miners, although she also protects other trades as well. She also protects against lightning strikes.
Barbara is one of the Three Holy Maidens. She was merged into a triad with two other holy virgins, namely with Margareta of Antioch, who is the protectress of all virgins and women, especially of those giving birth, and who fought evil in the shape of a dragon, and with Katharina of Alexandria, who is often depicted with a book as token of wisdom and learning or with a wheel and a sword as token of her martyrdom.
There is a phrase that says:
Margareta mit dem Wurm,
Barbara mit dem Turm
Katharina mit dem Radl,
das sind die drei heiligen Madl.
„Margareta with the dragon, Barbara with the tower, Katharina with the wheel, these are the Three Holy Maidens.”
In some landscapes the one or the other may be exchanged for Dorothea of Caesarea or Mary of Magdala. Often the three holy Maidens who are also called Virgines Capitales are depicted with the Mother Mary so that two of them form a triad with Mary. The mystical marriage of Saint Catherine to infant Jesus is often the subject of these pictures. Thus we see Mary sitting on a throne with Margareta and Katharina in the work of Goossen van der Weyden (1432-1514)  or Mary with Katharina and Barbara as in Hans Memling’s work (1474) , to name just two examples. At times, one of the Three Holy Maidens was replaced by another saint, as in the work of Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521), in which Rosa of Viterbo replaced Margareta or Barbara, respectively .
This grouping of virgins with a dominant mother figure has a parallel in the tradition of the Eastern Church. The triad of Christian virtues of faith, hope and love (Pistis, Elpis, Agape, or Fides, Spes, Caritas) are represented as daughters of the divine wisdom, Sancta Sophia . The latter group became known in western Europe already prior to the 6th century. The cult had centers in France (Cahors), in Luxembourg and in the Rhineland north of the Mosel.
To be continued.
Diers, M. 1998. Hildegard von Bingen (Deutscher TaschenbuchVerlag, München).
Gorys, E.1997. Lexikon der Heiligen (Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, München).
Maier, B. 1994. Lexikon der keltischen Religion und Kultur. (Alfred Körner Verlag, Stuttgart).
Maier, B. 2003. Die Religion der Germanen (C.H.Beck, München).
Reeve, M. D. (ed.) Wright, N. (trans.) 2007. Geoffrey of Monmouth: the History of the Kings of Britain: An edition and translation of De gestis Britonum (Historia Regum Brittannie). Arthurian Studies. (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press).
Zender, M. 1959. Räume und Schichten Mittelalterlicher Heiligenverehrung in ihrer Bedeutung für die Volkskunde. Die Heiligen des Mittleren Maaslandes und der Rheinlande in Kulturgeschichte und Kultverbreitung. (Rehinland-Verlag, Düsseldorf).
Weblinks to the images I mentioned in the essay:
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