I begin my story of a 20th-century, 2-foot-long porcelain plaque of St. Barbara, owned by J.S., with this poem celebrating Santa Barbara’s patron saint. It was written in 1922 by G. K. Chesterton, who was not a resident of our city, but a devout Catholic:
“Barbara the beautiful
Had praise of tongue and pen:
Her hair was like a summer night
Dark and desired of men.
“Her feet like birds from far away
That linger and light in doubt;
And her face was like a window
Where a man’s first love looked out.
“Her sire was master of many slaves,
A hard man of his hands;
They built a tower about her
In the desolate golden lands,
Sealed as the tyrants sealed their tombs,
Planned with an ancient plan,
And set two windows in the tower
Like the two eyes of a man.”
J.S. bought this porcelain plaque at the Santa Barbara Mission long ago, at a parish craft show.
Barbara holds a tower, referred to in the above snippet of the poem, “The Ballad of Saint Barbara.”
She has been a beloved saint since the 7th century. People see her in carved stone at the apex of the architrave of the Santa Barbara Mission, standing with the tower and sword. In California, she has been beloved from the Spanish to the Mission era to modern times.
Looking for a valuation of J.S.’s piece, I see a wonderful bronze figure of Saint Barbara holding a tower and a sword, standing in front of a wheeled canon, from 1900.
The plaque on the bronze states, in German, that the sculpture was presented to Oberleutant Ruiz of Frankfurt, “scheidenden” (retiring.) The piece was made by Emile Hub (1876-1954). The clue to this piece, offered on 1st Dibs for a little over $1,000, is the canon. The award was given to Ruiz, a German artillery fabricator.
The connection with Sant Barbara and artillery is unique; Barbara is the Patron Saint of gunners and artillerymen.
The web site of the U.S. Field Artillery Association gives her entire history:
Dioscorus, a Roman Nobleman of Asia Minor of Nicomedia in the 3rd-4th century A.D. had a beautiful daughter. He shut her in a tower, fearful of suitors and Christians.
Dioscorus commissioned a bathhouse to be placed in the top of the tower, lit by two windows, and left on a long trip.
Upon his return, Barbara had knocked down the walls to create a third window. (Some stories say that Barbara was converted by a beautiful young Christian Priest. The line in the ballad refers to this: “Where a man’s first love looked out.”)
Suspecting Barbara was honoring the Holy Trinity, the father hauled her to a Roman tribunal, who sentenced her to death for her conversion to Christianity. Her father obliged by torturing and dragging her to a mountaintop where he beheaded her. The father was mysteriously struck by lightning and incinerated.
All that remained of him was his sword.
Therefore, Barbara is the patroness of those in danger from thunderstorms, fire, explosions and sudden death.
Her feast day is Dec. 4. Our town was named after her because Padre Fermin Lasuen founded the Santa Barbara Mission on St. Barbara’s Day: Dec. 4, 1786.
Ironically our city has been often visited by thunderstorms and fire.
How did this wonderful myth stand the test of time? By the 9th century, 200 years had passed after the first shine built to her in Germany, it is said. Early in the 9th century, authors Ado and Usuard wrote the “Symeon Metaphrases,” a martyrology, which included the tales and miracles of Barbara.
By 1448, a new miracle was attributed to Barbara: German Henry Kock’s home was consumed by fire. He could not escape, he prayed to Barbara, and managed to get out in time to receive his last rites. Thus Barbara’s position as the patron saint of those in danger by storms, fire, and explosions was solidified.
No wonder that in the 13th century, artillerymen and gunners chose Barbara as their patron saint. Early cannons were notorious for blowing up as they were lit! She also became the patron saint of miners.
You will recognize Barbara by her attributes: the tower in her hands or by her side, which bears three windows; the palm frond of martyrdom and a sword (the same sword used to behead her). And she may hold a chalice and wafer.
The value of J.S.’s charming plaque is $400.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.