Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Reliquary Bust of Saint Barbara
  • Creator: Workshop of Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden
  • Description:

    This reliquary bust, created in the workshop of Nicolaus Gerhaert von Leyden, depicts the virgin martyr Saint Barbara. It is made of wood, and includes a cavity in the chest that would have held a relic which is now lost. The bust is part of a set of four with Saint Margaret, Saint Agnes, and the bust’s companion piece, Saint Catherine, which is also housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The four busts would likely have sat together on an altar in the Benedictine Abbey Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Wissembourg. Scholars have been able to identify the bust as Saint Barbara due to the tower in her right hand, which is the tradition attribute of Saint Barbara, as she was imprisoned in a tower by her father.

    Saint Barbara was called upon particularly by prisoners and those about to die who needed a brief reprieve in order to receive the last rites. She was the patron saint of corporations and professions, specifically those concerned with artillery, mining, bell ringing, prisoners, architects, and masons. She is a virgin saint who converted to Christianity and was imprisoned in a tower by her heretic father as punishment for her conversion. Barbara managed to escape the tower, but was recaptured by her father. After her capture, she was brutally tortured – stripped, beaten with ropes, lacerated with combs, burn, had her breasts cut off, and paraded naked through the city – before she was finally beheaded. Immediately after her death, her father was killed by a bolt of lightning, which is why Saint Barbara is known for providing protection against lightning and sudden death. In the story of Saint Barbara her torture is both graphic and sexual in nature, which is common in many of the stories of female martyrs. Male martyred saints also often undergo torture, but it is decidedly less sexual.

    The wooden bust of Barbara is that of a very beautiful woman, which is in keeping with the way Barbara is typically depicted. Busts of female saints were often very beautiful to make them more appealing to viewers. However, this depiction of Barbara is just of her head – it removes her sexual components in an attempt to maintain her purity. It is interesting that the bust of Saint Barbara has individualized features which separate her from the other three sculptures in the group. Many medieval representations depict generic women who are identifiable based only on their attributes. It would make sense for Barbara to be depicted in this manner since the legend of Saint Barbara follows a similar storyline to that of the other female virgin martyr saints, and so Barbara is not a particularly distinctive saint. However, this bust brings her to life with expressive gestures, a keen intelligence, and a sense of energetic motion.

    Virginity was high valued in the medieval period, particularly by the Church, which taught that virgins received a much greater reward in heaven than did married women or widows. The cutting off of a woman’s sexual organs in the stories of the virgin martyr saints underlines their status as pure and free from sexuality. Additionally, the male sexual gaze was disempowering for women, and so women could derive power from not being able to be viewed in a sexual manner. Voyeurism was seen as an activity of lower-class, impious men with no respect for women or for God. Many of the female virgin martyr saint stories, such as the story of Saint Barbara, show just how difficult it was for a medieval woman to maintain her virginity, but also how rewarding it was in the end. Women’s devotion to the female virgin martyrs provided crucial support during the most difficult moments in life and offered models of behavior which encouraged such qualities as patience, bravery and faith.

  • Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Barbara, Virgin Martyr, Saint Hagiography Martyrs Reliquaries
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 15
  • Date: circa 1465
  • Related Work: Reliquary bust of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by the workshop of Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden, Metropolitan Museum of Art;
    Reliquary Bust of Saint Margaret of Antioch, attributed to Nicolaus Gerhaert von Leyden, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Current Location: New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.190.1735
  • Original Location: Strasbourg, Upper Rhineland, Germany
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Sculptures
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Walnut; Paint; Gilding; Reliquaries
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 50.5/44.5 /27.6
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Bernau, Anke, Ruth Evans and Sarah Salih.  Medieval Virginities.  University of Toronto Press, 2003;
    Caviness, Madeline H. Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and Scopic Economy.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011;
    Devotion & Splendor: Medieval Art at the Art Institute of Chicago.  University of Washington Press, 2004;
    Little, Charles T.  Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture.  Yale University Press, 2006;
    “Reliquary Bust of Saint Barbara.” http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/464128.
    Taubert, Johannes.  Polychrome Sculpture: Meaning, Form, Conservation.  Getty Conservation Institute, 2015
    Winstead, Karen A. Virgin Martyrs: Legends of Sainthood in Late Medieval England.  Cornell University Press, 1997;
    Wixom, William D.  “Late Medieval Sculpture in the Metropolitan: 1400 to 1530.”  Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New Series, Vol. 64, No. 4, (Spring, 2007): 1, 3-48.