4 December – St Barbara of Nicomedia (235)

Saint Barbara[1]

Saint Barbara is celebrated on 4 December.  She is known in Greek as Αγία Βαρβάρα, and in Spanish as Santa Barbara.  She was martyred for her faith on 4 December 235.

Saint Barbara is widely celebrated and considered the patron saint of artillerymen, military engineers, miners and others who work with explosives and also the patron saint of mathematicians.  However, as is the case with the lives of the saints it is not clear how much of her story is based on fact.  For this reason Saint Barbara was removed from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar in 1969 by Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio Mysterii Paschalis.   But Saint Barbara is still celebrated in the Eastern Church and as recently as 4 December 2018[2] The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Fener, Istanbul sent Bodrum Metropoliton Alikarnasos Andrianos to Izmit to lead a service to celebrate the life of St Barabara.

It is not clear where Saint Barbara comes from – it is variously suggested that she lived in Phonecian Heliopolis (Baalbek, Lebanon) or Nicomedia, present day Izmit, Turkey.   Her story is included in this collection of Christian women because she is a Christian woman who is celebrated and known about[3].

The extent documentation suggests that Saint Barbara was brought up by her father Dioscorus after her mother died.  Dioscorus wanted to protect his daughter so he locked her in a high tower[4].  Only her father and her pagan teachers came to visit her.  Barbara spent a lot of time looking out of the tower on the surrounding hills and admiring God’s creation.  She doubted that the beautiful world she saw was created by the pagan gods that her father and her teachers worshipped and believed in.  Eventually Dioscorus allowed Barbara to leave her tower, he hoped that having some freedom would change her and that she would agree to marry one of the suitors he had found for her.  She used her new found freedom to meet with Christians and become a Christian.

Her father,Dioscorus, had a bath house built for Barbara.  The original architectural plans was for 2 windows but when her father was absent Barbara had the plans altered and asked the builders to put in three windows so that there would be a Trinity of light in the bath house.  When Dioscorus returned from his travels Barbara told him that she had become a Christian.  Full of rage he grabbed his sword ready to kill her, but she ran off.  Dioscorus followed her but was prevented from reaching her when a hill blocked his way.

The hill opened up and Barbara was hidden in a crevice.  Her father asked two local shepherds if they had seen his daughter.  The first denied he had seen her but the second betrayed her hiding place.

Dioscorus beat his daughter, locked her up, starved her then handed her over to Martianus, the prefect of the city.  Despite continued ill treatment by both Dioscorus and Martianus Barbara stood firm in her faith.  She was joined by another woman, Juliana.  They were both subject to various tortures and Barbara was condemned to death by beheading by her father.

Barbara was beheaded on 4 December.  Legend has it that both Dioscorus and Martianus, the prefect, were then struck dead by lightning.

In the 6th century relics of St Barbara were taken to Constantinople.  Six hundred years later, they were taken to Kiev  by the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenos[5] where they remain.

The Order of Saint Barbara is an honorary society within the United States Army Field Artillery Associated and the United States Army Air Defense Artillery Association.

Cities such as Santa Barbara, California are named after this saint.  There are in total 45 cities that are named after Saint Barbara of Nicomedia[6].

The service to celebrate Saint Barbara’s life was held in an ancient building in İzmit Şehitler Korusu[7].  This place is associated with Saint Barbara maybe where she was imprisoned before her martyrdom.

Izmit was known in ancient times as Nicomedia[8].  There has been a settlement in the Izmit area since 1200-800 BC.  The city took the name of Nicomedia during the reign of King Nicomedes (279-250BC).  During the reign of King Nicomedes III (94-74BC) the province of Bithynia became part of the Roman Empire.  Nicomedia was the major city in the province of Bithynia.  Bithynia is immortalised in the writings of Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113) who was governor of Bithynia and died in Birthynia.

During Emperor Diocletian’s reign (284-305) Nicomedia became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Because the Roman Empire had become so large Diocletian introduced the Tetrachy system of ruling with two Agustus and two Ceasars.  Emperor Diocletian and Caesar Galerius ruled the East from Nicomedia while Emperor Maximian and Caesar Constantius ruled the west.  After 284 Diocletian rebuilt Nicomedia as his new capital.   During this time a hippodrome, palace, temple, bathhouse, mint, a shipyard and various official buildings were built.  Nicomedia became the fourth city in the Roman Empire after Rome, Antioch (Antakya) and Alexandria.

Saint Barbara is portrayed as determined woman who while imprisoned in the tower had begun to question pagan belief because of her observations of natural beauty that she was able to observe from the tower within which her father imprisoned her.  We don’t know for sure whether St Barbara was locked up in a tower.  But Jungian psychologists believe that being locked in a tower can symbolise living too much in one’s head and not being grounded in everyday reality.  The person who is locked in the tower is set free through love, through learning to feel, to be in touch with their feelings (some would see this as exercising the right brain function rather than the more cerebral left brain functions).  Being let out of the tower can also symbolize the Jungian process of individuation[9].

The story seems to suggest that St Barbara exercised her personal choice by becoming a Christian, by symbolising her new found faith with three windows in her bath house.  Three windows, representing the Christian concept of a Trinitarian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  She suffered greatly for her choices and ended life as a martyr beheaded[10] by her own father.


[1] http://www.visitizmit.org/santa-barbara-tower





[2] https://www.haberturk.com/kocaeli-haberleri/17065045-azize-santa-barbara-izmitte-anildi

[3] DS one of my former students attended a service in Izmit on 4 December 2015 and told me about her experience.  It is that account that has led me to research and add Saint Barbara’s story to this collection.

[4] Locking up in a tower to protect a daughter is also known about in Istanbul.  In that case the daughter was locked up in Leander’s tower, a well known landmark in the Bosphorus between Uskudar and Sirkeci.

[5] Also known as Komnene.  Barbara, daughter of Isaac (or Alexius) Comnenos and Irene of Alnia was born in about 1070.

[6] Present day Izmit.

[7] Martyr’s Park, Izmit.


[9] To develop the ability to act independently, to be an individual rather than controlled by another.

[10] Losing one’s head is not always a bad thing, if one is too much of a thinking type! The beheading may also be a symbol of that. 

Copyright©2019 Rev Ros Wilkinson