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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755

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Unknown Burgundian Master, active late fifteenth century

Saint Barbara
About 1470-90
Polychrome wood
Gift of Edward A. Hansen and John Philip Kassebaum; S.981.102

Three female saints were exceptionally popular in the late Middle Ages: Margaret, Catherine, and Barbara. This sculpture of the latter saint is a perfect example of the cult statues often mounted in chapels and churches. Barbara was a pagan princess whose father kept her safe in a tower he built for her, but he then persecuted her when she announced her conversion to Christianity. She was renowned for her learning, especially her ability to outreason the pagan philosophers. In this piece, Saint Barbara is shown with three of her many attributes: the crenellated tower, her crown, and a book. She is thus simultaneously of elevated status, wise, and clever. For example, she had a third window placed in a tower to symbolize the Trinity. Such a figure would have been particularly appealing to the communities of female religious, which were comprised of the daughters of the nobility. This work may have been executed for such a group, who looked to the virgin martyrs as models for committed faith.

The present work is related in style and symbols to statues of the saint found in Pontaubert, a village southeast of Paris, and in the Musée Rolin, Autun. The numerous points of commonality in costume and figure type firmly place the statue in the Burgundian school, identified by its propensity for oval heads, soft facial features, and long, loosely curled hair. Yet the aforementioned comparative examples are larger and carved from stone rather than wood. The figure of Saint Barbara is stylistically simpler, with fewer drapery folds and a more impassive face, suggesting that it most likely was commissioned by provincial patrons.

The attributes of this work have been given greater emphasis. The three windows in the tower are clearly visible, and the pages in the volume she holds are divided into three parts, which is particularly unusual. Both symbols refer to the Trinity, the locus of Saint Barbara’s devotion, and they are given equal emphasis and weight, so that the sculpture seems to assert that the components of active devotion are identical parts faith, sacrifice, and knowledge of the word of God. In this sculpture, faith and doctrine literally go hand in hand.

Last Updated: 1/18/10