Today I stumbled upon a yard sale featuring a statue of a saint I didn’t know. As one that is an avid Hagiographer, telling stories and writing books on saints, I was intrigued. It was a woman holding a sword and standing by a pizza oven. The image led me down a spiral pulling in a village just outside town, the Disney movie Tangled, Barbie dolls, and a legend of an independent thinking woman at a time where such a thing rarely existed.
The story of Rapunzel, a popular fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, has captivated the imagination of children for centuries and has most recently been brought to life by Disney through the movie Tangled. Interestingly enough, the tragic story of a beautiful princess locked away in a tall tower is based on the story of St. Barbara, a gal who died in 267.
Barbara was the daughter of rich merchant who lived in modern day Turkey. Barbara and her father were foreigners to the area, or called barbarians, as when foreigners talked their language sounded like “bar bar bar” was being said. Hence the origins of the name Barbara means foreigner, or a derogatory way to identify someone of a different speech and culture.
Perhaps being foreigners to the area is why Barbara’s father locked her in a tower with two windows in an effort to protect her from the world (a not uncommon parental desire, but even I never considered a tower for my kids). A Catholic priest snuck into her chamber disguised as a physician. Over time, he taught her the Catholic faith and baptized her. Others versions have visiting angels bringing her over to the then new faith.
Either way, Barbara converted and subsequently installed a third window in her tower to symbolize the Holy Trinity.
When her father questioned the third window, she confessed herself to be a Catholic. Her father took Barbara to the authorities where she again refused to renounce her new faith. The judge ordered her father to slice off her head and he and the judge were, immediately following Barbara’s beheading, struck down by lighting.
Barbara now is the patroness of sudden and violent death and a figure in Mexican retablos saving folks from a wide array of sudden death opportunities from being drowned by an octopus to falling from a circus trapeze.
Her aid at death catapulted Barbara to be one of the 14 Holy Helpers, a name for a group of Catholic Saints, patrons against different deadly diseases. The term originated in the era of bubonic plague, when every sort of protection was more than welcomed.
Unlike other early female saints (Philomena, Blandina, Agatha, Ursula etc.) Barbara continues to be a popular name. The originator of the Barbie doll, named the doll for her daughter ensuring the continuing popularity of the name.
With the development of gunpowder, St. Barbara became associated with the military and sudden death through gunfire and explosions. Today the weapon areas on a ship are called the Saint Barbara while both the army and air force hold the Order of Saint Barbara as an honorary society.
St. Barbara is depicted in art standing by or holding a tower with three windows (the Holy Trinity), sword (how she died) and lightning (how her father and judge died) and sometimes with cannons (for her military connection). The tower is what I assumed on my statue was a pizza oven.
Early churches added towers to their architecture in honor of St. Barbara, a tradition that continues to this day. (Bells got added to the towers believing the sound scared the devil away. Something to consider when awoken by pre-dawn clanging.)
The links between Saint Barbara and Rapunzel go beyond both being locked in towers. Like Saint Barbara, Rapunzel was an independent thinking woman who refused to listen to authority. But luckily for Rapunzel, she didn’t suffer the same gruesome fate as the stories that were her inspiration.
By Joseph Toone
Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series. All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays. Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA. Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkingTours.com, and JosephTooneTours.com.