There is no historical evidence of Barbara’s life. The earliest hagiographies of the saint date back to the 7th century. There are several versions as to the time and place of St. Barbara’s martyrdom. Many redactions of her hagiography claim that the saint died in 306 AD in the city of Heliopolis (today’s Syria). According to these writings, Barbara was the daughter of a wealthy and noble man who professed paganism. An early widower, he brought up his daughter alone. Wishing to conceal his daughter from indiscreet men’s eyes, he settled her in a high tower.

When Barbara grew up, her father wanted to marry her off, but the girl, who got used to living in seclusion, defied her father’s will. So he let her leave the tower occasionally hoping that she would meet other girls and eventually change her mind. While her father was long away from home, Barbara learned about Christ from Christian women and took baptism.

The news of Barbara being a Christian infuriated her father. He brutally beat the girl and handed her over to the city governor for punishment. After the girl refused to make sacrifice to pagan gods, the governor ordered to have her stripped and tortured publicly. In the night Christ appeared to saint Barbara in prison and healed her wounds. The next day the torture was resumed. One virtuous woman named Juliana, seeing Barbara’s suffering, burst out crying of compassion. The governor ordered to seize her and torture together with Saint Barbara. After he realized that the women wouldn’t deny Christ, he ordered to behead them. Saint Barbara was executed by her own father.

The bodies of Sts. Barbara and Juliana were buried by a virtuous man. After a while, the relics of the saints began to heal people from leprosy. On this site a church and a monastery were later built. Saint Barbara’s relics were later transferred to Constantinople. According to a medieval Russian legend, fragments of her relics were kept in Kiev.

In Byzantine and medieval Russian art the saint is traditionally portrayed as a noble Roman woman dressed in a richly decorated vestment, with a cross in her hand. The earliest of surviving images of Saint Barbara dated to 705-707 AD is found on the frescoes of the Santa Maria Antiqua Church in Rome. On medieval Russian icons the saint is often depicted together with other saint women, such as the icon of “Selected saints: Paraskeva, Barbara and Juliana” dated to the late 14th – early 15th centuries, from the State Tretyakov Gallery collection.

The feast day of Saint Barbara is celebrated on December 17th (December 4th in the old style).

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.


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2. Шередега Н. Н. Избранные святые: Параскева, Варвара и Ульяна // Государственная Третьяковская Галерея. Древнерусское искусство X – начала XV века. Каталог собрания. Том 1. М., 1995. Кат. № 38.