Material Devotion

The devotional sculpture of the Providence Saint Barbara dated to the mid-fourteenth century, depicted in sumptuous drapery and holding her iconographic tower, is exemplary of the visual and material relationships medieval Christians had with saints across the medieval world. Carved from wood in the round and painted with once brightly colorful polychrome, the figure has an elongated solidity and compassionate gaze―a decorative style reminiscent of French architectural sculpture of the fourteenth century.1 Visually striking in scale―standing over one and a half meters tall―and depicted with a degree of realism and embellishment characteristic of devotional sculpture of the period, the Providence Saint Barbara provides a unique glimpse into the myriad of practices, and often intangible expressions, of medieval Christian religious practice and popular devotion. 

The dominant visual iconography of the Providence Saint Barbara is her distinctive tower, which she holds on her left side counterbalanced by a gentle sway of her torso. The remains of a single palm frond in the saint’s right hand―another iconographic attribute of medieval Christian martyrs―reminds the viewers of Saint Barbara’s triumph over death.2 The tower represents both her captivity by her pagan father and a refuge for the contemplation of her newly discovered Christian faith. As her vita accounts, Barbara, was confined in a tower to protect her from the unscrupulous aspects of the outside world. Barbara resisted, however, and was secretly baptized. After a series of miraculous events that enabled her escape, she was eventually captured and tortured for her disobedience and unwillingness to renounce her Christian faith. In addition to the embellished detail of Saint Barbara’s brutal martyrdom, the importance of the tower―emphasizing her captivity and isolation—would have been particularly poignant to medieval Christians, both lay and clerical, who may have related to experiences of suppression, imprisonment, and the search for faith within social and gender confinements.3

New archival evidence has also emerged for the Providence Saint Barbara, providing invaluable contextual clues for identifying the role this sculpture had in the ritual and devotional practices of a specific community.4 Most notably, an archival photograph identifying the Providence Saint Barbara as belonging to the parish church of Dornach, a small village just outside of Mulhouse, in present-day France. The earliest recorded history of Dornach situates this village of the Holy Roman Empire as being founded in the ninth century under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Mulhouse’s prominent Benedictine abbey.5 In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in a parish church such as Dornach’s, Saint Barbara would have been one of many sculptures installed in the architectural niches of columns or on altar shrines.6 Evidence also suggests that decorative embellishments were added to altar shrines and statues across Alsace beginning in the thirteenth century, including colorful bouquets and garlands that would have evoked the saints’ intercession, but also appealed to the personality of the saint as embodied in the physical sculpture―an aspect of medieval devotion that often complicates the hazy division between devotion, animism, and worship in medieval devotion.7 Viewed as being more than just exemplary Christians, saints such as Saint Barbara were believed to have singular ability to intercede directly on their own to assist those who contemplated their singular lives, deaths, and exemplary spiritual calling.8  

Although few comparanda for the Providence Saint Barbara in the region around fourteenth-century Dornach survive, devotional representations of Saint Barbara become almost ubiquitous across France as the saint’s role as intercessor for sudden illnesses makes her a popular saint for those navigating the plague-ridden fourteenth century.9 The array of pictorial mediums to represent saints was not limited to three-dimensional forms and included stained glass, panel painting, relief sculpture, and illustrations.10 The physicality of the medieval saint in sculptural form was, however, uniquely imbued with a specific meaning―the sculpture represented a continuum of time in which the saint’s death was no longer part of the distant past but played an active role in the temporal, physical life of the present. In the sacred architecture of the church, the space of present and past, heaven, and earth, could merge, and a dramatic and profoundly moving communication between the saint and devotee was possible.

Erica Kinias is a first-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. Her research interests include monastic art and architecture in the Middle Ages. 

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Publication History

  1. Gesta: International Center for Medieval Art, volume 20/2 (1981), 349.
  2. Gillerman, Dorothy W, ed. Gothic Sculpture in America, vol 1: New England Museums. New York: ICMA and Garland Pub., 1989.
  3. Ziegler, Joanna E. The Word Becomes Flesh: Cantor Art Gallery, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, 4 November–8 December 1985. Worcester, Mass.: The Gallery, 1985.
  • 1 Dorothy Gillerman, Gothic Sculpture in America (New York: Garland Pub., 1989), 356.
  • 2Ibid.
  • 3Megan Cassidy-Welch, “Prison and Sacrament in the Cult of Saints: Images of St Barbara in Late Medieval Art,” Journal of Medieval History 35.4 (2009): 371–84.
  • 4“Saint Barbara” vertical file, u.d., RISD collection archive (38.019).
  • 5Xavier Mossmann, Notice sur Dornach (Mulhouse: Veuve Bader, 1872). The village of Dornach was incorporated by Mulhouse by the early twentieth century.
  • 6J. E. A Kroesen and Regnerus Steensma, The Interior of the Medieval Village Church (Leuven: Peeters, 2012), 27–149.
  • 7Stephen N. Fliegel, A Higher Contemplation: Sacred Meaning in the Christian Art of the Middle Ages (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2012).
  • 8 Kroesen and Steensma, The Interior of the Medieval Village Church, 15–27.
  • 9Barbara F. Abou-El-Haj, The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 26–28.
  • 10Abou-El-Haj, The Medieval Cult of Saints, 36.