The Beheading of Saint Barbara

Dioscorus, the enraged father, raises his sword to decapitate his daughter Barbara
Dioscorus, the enraged father, raises his sword to decapitate his daughter Barbara

by Ray Setterfield

December 4, 4 AD — Today is the feast day of Saint Barbara of Nicomedia, an unfortunate woman who met the fate, according to legend, of being decapitated by her own father.

But today, not only the United States Army and Marine Corps maintain the Order of Saint Barbara, but the US Army Artillery Association bears the emblem of the Order of Saint Barbara as a coat of arms.

Across the world she is celebrated as the patron saint of a host of professions and people, including architects, bricklayers, carpenters, roofers, electricians, bell-ringers, miners, ironworkers, stone cutters, geologists and mathematicians.

She is also the patron saint of butchers, cooks, grave-diggers, booksellers, girls, the dying, prisoners – and the Italian Navy. Enough, as they say, to try the patience of a saint!

There is no documentary evidence of her life and work but legend has it that Barbara of Nicomedia was born in the 3rd Century. Nicomedia corresponds to the current city of Izmit in the Turkish province of Kocaeli.

Her father, Dioscorus, is said to have been a pagan merchant who dedicated his life to looking after his daughter when her mother died. Barbara grew into a beautiful young woman and attracted many admirers, but none of them earned the approval of Dioscorus.

In fact, to protect her against impoverished suitors – or even worse, Christians – he built a tower and made Barbara live there in total seclusion. Only after she had rejected the advances of several men did Dioscorus allow her some freedom.

It was then that she met a priest who baptised her into the Christian faith – about the same time as her father started building a bathhouse for Barbara’s comfort. It had two windows but she ordered the builders to make another so that the three, for her, could represent the Holy Trinity.

Dioscorus, the story goes, was furious when he found out and threatened her with a sword, causing Barbara to flee. She ran off to the mountains but as she did so a hill miraculously opened and hid her inside.

In pursuit, Dioscorus asked two shepherds if they had seen her. The first replied negatively but the second betrayed Barbara. When her father found the girl and beat her the Judas shepherd was not only turned to stone but his sheep became locusts.

Again Barbara ran off but when caught Dioscorus lifted his sword and decapitated his rebel daughter. Not surprisingly, such a shocking act brought retribution and a bolt of lightning struck Dioscorus, killing him instantly.

Barbara was declared a saint in 1568 by Pope Pius V, but how did she become the patron saint of artillery? Another legend has the answer.

It is said that the walls of a pagan city on the shores of Africa simply could not be penetrated by Christian besiegers – at least not until Saint Barbara was invoked. Then, after a few more shots the walls collapsed and the pagans surrendered.

Out of gratitude the artillerymen placed images of Saint Barbara in the powder chambers of their ships before going home. Disaster threatened when fire broke out on one of the ships but, miraculously, the flames went out as they approached the image.

Barbara’s remains are buried at St. Vladimir's Cathedral in Kiev. Other parts of her body are kept as relics in Catholic churches around the world.

Published: November 13, 2021
Updated: November 15, 2021

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