Barbara is the most volatile of the Three Explosive Virgin Martyrs,* who form the core lineup of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.* She’s most often shown as a beautiful young woman holding a tower that has three windows. The other two EVMs are Saint Catherine of Alexandria, as in Catherine-wheel fireworks, and Saint Margaret of Antioch, who defeated a dragon that had swallowed her by blowing it up from the inside,* which is why Margaret is the patron saint of women in labor. They hang out being ahistorical and irrepressible together.
Saint Barbara’s popularity got a boost when gunpowder technology reached Europe. Here we see her smiling serenely while standing atop the thrashed remains of the previous climax weapons system, the knight in armor. To this day, the name for the powder magazine in Spanish or Italian ships is santabarbara.
She continues to be popular. Here’s her MySpace page. Here’s the episode from her Life where lightning hits the tower, which became trump #16 in the standard Tarot deck. Here she is in one of her more prominent current gigs (see also).
She’s the patron saint of sailors,* gunners, artillery, sappers, explosive ordnance disposal, military engineers,* mathematicians, fortification builders, ammunition workers, saltpetre workers, smelters, brass workers, foundrymen, armorers,* bomb technicians, explosives manufacturers, fireworks makers, miners, mining engineers, geologists, railway workers, architects, construction workers, masons, stonemasons, stonecutters, tilers, hatters, milliners, brewers, prisoners,* martyrs, gravediggers, fire prevention, warehouses, ammunition magazines, storms, lightning, landmines, incoming shells, explosions, and sudden death, and of anyone who works at risk of a sudden and violent end. Also, if things do go kablooey and you’re mortally burnt and/or blown up, invoking Saint Barbara is your best bet for staying alive long enough for last rites.
She would undoubtedly be the patron saint of rocket scientists, vulcanologists, chemistry students, explosive building demolition, and people who deep-fry turkeys, if the Vatican didn’t keep trying to scrub her out of the calendar for being so embarrassingly ahistorical.
(Digression: I like my godfather’s take on dubious saints. He says that a saint whose legend is ahistorical, contradictory, and folkloric is merely a saint for whom we do not have a reliable saint’s life; and there are lots of those. It’s also well known that there are many saints who die unknown to us.
He says that if you’re ever involved in doings that are of interest to agencies whose names are three-letter acronyms, and they recruit you as a contact, what they’ll do is give you a number to call and a name to ask for. If later something happens, and you call that number and ask for that name so you can tell them about it, they’ll put you on hold for a bit, then put you through. The person you’ll wind up talking to doesn’t actually bear the name you were given. What that name did was tell them which file to pull and look through before talking to you.
By analogy, he says, who knows who’s taking the Barbara duty when you pray? It might even be someone named Barbara.) (End digression.)
The other military saints don’t get nearly the attention she does. It’s remarkable how often she turns up on websites about artillery units [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10], explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), armourers, miners and mining engineers [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6], railway workers, military engineers [1, 2, 3], and architects. It’s one of the things I love about the cult of Saint Barbara: no group, organization, or profession that works with things that explode and/or collapse ever parts ways with her. She may be out of the calendar, and they may be officially secular, nondenominational, or even atheist, but she’s still their patron saint, and they would not be so imprudent as to let her go.