Wednesday, January 30


The Three Holy Maidens, or, St. Barbara on the Western Front

I'm currently at work on a set of three images of the Three Holy Maidens, SS. Katherine (of Alexandria), Margaret and Barbara, a fun subject as the three of them fall into that class of early saints equipped with notoriously flamboyant legends, extravagant martyrdoms bristling with elaborate attributes, excess good looks*, and a whole lot of medieval piety. While these fanciful accretions (even Blessed Jacobus de Voragine sounds a bit skeptical when he gets to the bit about St. Margaret and the exploding dragon) proved to be a bit of a liability when they got unceremoniously booted off the General Calendar in 1969 after more than a millennia of prayers answered and miracles worked, St. Katherine's cultus was restored in the most recent edition of the Roman Missal, and SS. Margaret and Barbara are back in play now that the Motu Proprio has reinstituted the traditional calendar, which is something that will gladden the hearts of votaries and saint-watchers everywhere.

(And, in the case of St. Barbara, practicioners of santería. Note to readers: it's one thing to have a statue of St. Barbara on a house, it's quite another to put a dollar bill, a glass of water, and an apple in front of it and call it Shango. Just letting you know.)

A certain skepticism about some of the wonkier historical details in their record is inevitable (and hardly blasphemous, in my mind), but, whatever their biographies, surely someone up there must be answering those prayers. In the end, their legends remind us of the very real presence of the miraculous, or even the merely wondrous in the world, and, especially in the case of St. Katherine, in some versions a queen-regnant with a brilliant mind and a considerable amount of "don't mess with me" attitude, the unique genius and even power of Catholic Woman. No pale churchmice they.

In the process of digging up images to use as prototypes, I came across a really splendid though rather odd image of Saint Barbara shown as the patron saint of artillery, done for a German imperial regiment during the First World War. (For the record, this does not imply that the Shrine endorses those gauche Hohenzollern upstarts; we all know the true ruler of Germany is Archduke Otto. But that's another story.) Because her dad got struck by lightning after lopping off her head, she tends to be associated with things that go boom inadvertently. She has given the name of santabárbara to the powder magazine of Spanish ships, which usually came equipped with a statue of her, a loving testament of devotion in a dangerous job. (Unfortunately, the cast of Mythbusters has not taken this sensible precaution, yet.)

Of course, it's a Bavarian regiment.

I don't think I will use this as a model for my own drawing of St. Barbara--I was hoping for something a bit more architectural, with her tower and chalice, and it wouldn't quite match the other drawings--but it's hard not to respect a saint wearing a trench helmet over her veil.

*While the Legenda Sanctorem does not record it, I have no doubt each one of them could have easily won the evening gown segment in the Miss Nicopolis AD 304 pageant.

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