According to legend, Saint Barbara was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy pagan named Dioscorus. They lived near Nicomedia in Asia Minor (today; Izmit, Turkey), during the persecution of Maximinus of Thrace. Because of her beauty Dioscorus was fearful that Barbara would be demanded in marriage and taken away from him. He jealously shut her up in a tower to protect her from the outside world.
Barbara had heard of the teachings of Christ, and while in the tower, a Christian disguised as a physician gained access to her and instructed her in the faith. While her father was gone she spent much time in contemplation. From the windows of her tower she looked out upon the surrounding countryside and marveled at the growing things; the trees, the animals and the people. She decided that all these must be part of a master plan, and that the idols of wood and stone worshipped by her parents must be condemned as false. Gradually she came to accept the Christian faith.
Shortly before embarking on a journey, her father commissioned a sumptuous bathhouse to be built for her, approving the design before he departed. As Barbara’s belief grew and became firm, she persuaded the workers to alter the bathhouse her father had planned, adding a third window so that the three windows might honor the Holy Trinity.
When her father returned, he was enraged at the changes and infuriated when Barbara acknowledged that she was a Christian. He hauled her before the pagan authorities were she refused to renounce her Faith although she was brutally tortured. Finally the prefect of the province decreed that she be put to death by beheading. Her father led her to the top of a mountain where he carried out the death sentence and cut off her head. Immediately he was struck by lightning, his body reduced to ashes.
Saint Barbara lived about the year 300 AD. She was venerated as early as the seventh century. The legend of the lightning bolt, which struck down her persecutor, caused her to be regarded as the patron saint in time of danger from thunderstorms, fires and sudden death.
When gunpowder made its appearance in the Western world, Saint Barbara was invoked for aid against accidents resulting from explosions. Since some of the early artillery pieces had an unfortunate tendency to explode instead of actually firing the projectile, Saint Barbara became the patroness of the artillerymen. Her image was at one time frequently placed on arsenals and powder magazines, and the powder storage rooms on French warships today are still called Sainte-Barbe.
Saint Barbara is usually represented standing by a tower with three windows, carrying the palm of a martyr in her hand. Often, too, she holds a chalice and a sacramental wafer and sometimes cannon are displayed near her. The feast day of Saint Barbara is December 4th.