Legend has it that she came from Asia Minor and was the daughter of a wealthy pagan, Dioscorus. Against her father’s wishes she was baptised and swore an oath of chastity. His punishment was to lock her in a tower and starve her in an attempt to force her to renounce her faith and marry. With the assistance of some converted builders, St Barbara managed to escape, and took refuge in the interior of a mountain which miraculously opened up before her. In the end, however, she was captured, and her own father hauled her before a court and brought the charges. Condemned to torture, she demonstrated heroic faith. According to legend, Barbara was visited by an angel, which healed her wounds and administered communion to her. She died by the sword, allegedly at her father’s hand; he was struck dead by lightning after her execution. Barbara died a martyr’s death in Nicomedia or Heliopolis ca. 305, in a period of bloody persecution of Christians. The saint’s cult spread rapidly, both in the Orient and the Occident. Its growth in the first centuries of Christianity in the Polish lands was equally swift.
St Barbara’s Day, known as “Barbórka” in Poland, is the grande fête of miners. It is celebrated with ceremonial masses for miners and their families, concerts, parades, parties, and balls. This is also the day when new miners are received into the mining community. The most important element of this ritual is the jumping over the “skin”, the leather apron on which miners used to slide down the galleries – the purported purpose of this custom is to demonstrate the physical agility of the new would-be miner. St Barbara’s Day also used to be celebrated with great circumstance by fishermen and raftsmen.
Barbara – girl’s name, from the Greek barbarous: barbarian, alien, foreign.
Iconography: St Barbara is depicted in a long robe, often with a crown on her head. In her hand she holds a chalice containing the Host, a sword, or the palm of martyrdom. Her attributes are an angel, the palm of martyrdom, a chalice, a book, a lion, a sword, a monstrance, a peacock or ostrich feather, a tower, and the figure of a tormentor at her feet.
Patron saint of: miners, foundry workers, sailors, raftsmen, bricklayers, architects, blacksmiths, bell founders, fishermen, soldiers, stonemasons, prisoners, weavers, firework makers, cemetery chapels, and graves. In the folk tradition she is the patron saint of family life and of good death. She was thought to be an intercessor in time of storms and epidemics. Images of St Barbara were often displayed in homes.
There are many weather-related sayings connected with St Barbara’s Day, the best known of them being “A warm and wet St Barbara’s Day will bring a freezing Christmas Day”, and vice versa.
During World War II and under Martial Law, St Barbara was the patron saint of those active in the underground and opposition movements.
St Barbara is depicted in the following woodcuts: MCz.IV.146:60, Gr.Pol.12932 MNW, S/155/30/MT