“She is risen for all the humble, she has heard the conquered calling,
St. Barbara of the Gunners, with her hand upon the gun” (1). 103-104
December 4th is the feast day of Saint Barbara, whose legend almost certainly has no basis in fact. Locked in a tower by her father to protect her from contact with the outside world, especially possible suitors, she somehow managed to learn of Christianity and converted to that faith – demonstrating her conviction by adding a third window to her tower and thereby rendering it an outward and visible sign of the Trinity. Furious, her father brought her to justice for disobedience; various attempts to put her to death all failed, so he decapitated her himself. For his pains (and hers) he was struck by lightning.
As a result of the lightning blow, Saint Barbara became the patron saint of all those who work with explosives and face sudden death, artillerymen and miners chief among them. Because of the modification to her father’s building plans, she is also the patron saint of architects.
The lines above come from a poem by G.K. Chesterton, written on the anniversary of the first Battle of the Marne (September 1914) when French and British troops managed to halt the German advance upon Paris. The poem begins as German victory seems inevitable, but a Breton gunner invokes St. Barbara —
“Be at the bursting doors of doom, and in the dark deliver us,
Who loosen the last window on the sun of sudden death.” (71-72)
and the Allied guns drive the Germans back:
“The touch and the tornado; all our guns give tongue together,
St. Barbara for the gunnery and God defend the right –
They are stopped and gapped and battered as we blast away the weather,
Building window upon window to our lady of the light;
For the light is come on Liberty, her foes are falling, falling,
They are reeling, they are running as the shameful years have run.”(99-102)
(1) G.K. Chesterton. “A Ballad of Saint Barbara.” In George Herbert Clarke, ed. A Treasury of War Poetry. British and American Poems of the World War 1914-1919. Second Series. Boston, 1919. 150-158.
The image is the centre panel of a 16th century altarpiece in the Palazzo Bellomo in Syracuse, Sicily, photographed by Claire Stracke and made available on a website for Christian iconography, where details of the legend are available.