I often repeat that Eastern Orthodoxy has never taken a critical look at the saints in its voluminous calendar. Many have heavily fictionalized lives, and some are entirely fictional. That does not keep them from being very popular as “go-to” saints for praying Orthodox believers.
In discussing Eastern Orthodox saints, we should always remember that there is a point at which a saint’s life becomes so fictionalized that we cannot regard the saint as historical, because all we know of him or her is myth. Even though a saint by a certain name may once have existed, the name with its fictional “biography” no longer describes an actual historical person.
One of the most prominent of the saints whose lives are fiction is St. Barbara — Varvara in Russian, who is given the classification Velikomuchenitsa — “Great martyr.” The accounts of her life date from about the 9th to 13th centuries. Since the 15th century, she became one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers” in Catholicism.
By one tradition, Barbara was a maiden of the Syrian/Lebanese city of Heliopolis, in the time of the Emperor Maximian (305-311 — both her location — some place her in Nicomedia/Turkey — and her dates vary in the traditions). Her father Dioscorus was very wealthy, and to guard the beauty of his daughter, he locked her away in a tower (compare this to the ancient Greek myth of Danae, who was locked away in a room by her father). Secluded in her tower, Barbara pondered the world, and when her father finally allowed her freedom, she was converted to Christianity. Her father constructed a bathhouse with two windows, but when he was absent, Barbara had a third window made, to symbolize the Trinity (her tower was also said to have three windows). The bathhouse supposedly then had healing waters. Her father was enraged by her conversion, and handed her over to authorities to be tortured. Eventually she was, along with the maiden Juliana, beheaded. Dioscorus himself killed Barbara. The tale adds that fire/lightning fell from heaven and destroyed Dioscorus and the city prefect Martinianus as punishment.
Readers familiar with folktales will recognize not only Danae in this story, but also the later popular tale of Rapunzel, among others featuring a maiden locked in a tower — which became Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 310 “The Maiden in the Tower,” in the category of folk motifs.
Because of the “fire from heaven” destruction of her father, Barbara became the patron of artillery, explosives, etc. Bizarre though it is, in 1995 the Great Martyr Barbara was declared patron saint of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces.
In the interesting 19th century icon below — painted in the old style — we see an unusual pairing. At left is “Holy Prophet Micah,” and at right “Holy Barbara [the] Great Martyr.” The third figure — in the clouds at top — is Jesus. This icon teaches us another interesting little detail about Eastern Orthodox iconography.
The scroll held by Micah is not typical. It begins by saying “I saw you as the true vine….” You will recall that scrolls are the “cartoon bubbles” of icons. They are the figures in the icon speaking, and in this case Micah is speaking to Jesus up in the clouds. But the content of the text — that Jesus is the “true vine” — has a eucharistic symbolism that also links it to the figure of Barbara at right.
Barbara holds the white cross of martyrdom in her left hand, but in her right she bears something very unusual. It is a eucharistic chalice — a “communion” chalice. Now in Russian Orthodoxy, only a priest is permitted to touch a chalice, and (an example of sexism, believing that only a male can represent Christ) never a woman. Nonetheless we see here a woman — Barbara — holding a chalice in her hand. The other and later saint commonly seen with a chalice in icons follows the “male only” notion — John of Kronstadt (1829-1909).
The reason for the eucharistic connection and chalice in icons of Barbara is that there is an odd story about her in Eastern Orthodox tradition. It relates that before her martyrdom, Barbara prayed that all those who would recall her martyrdom and ask for her help would be saved from sudden death without confession and communion. She heard a heavenly voice granting her request. That is why she alone among female saints is sometimes depicted holding the eucharistic chalice in her hand. In Russia it is believed that the best way to insure safety from death without communion is to take communion on the annual day of Barbara’s commemoration in the Church.
In her iconography, Barbara may also be crowned (as in this icon) and holding a palm branch. There is sometimes an influence from Catholic art in late images depicting Barbara with a sword (representing her manner of death), or with a tower having three windows. After 1576, it was generally considered inappropriate to depict Barbara with a chalice in Catholic art, though examples still occasionally appeared. Catholic art may also sometimes include a cannon with Barbara (the “fire from heaven” notion again).