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St Barbara

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Mechelen (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1500 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved walnut, painted and gilded

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Mr W. B. Chamberlin

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10, case 1

Here St Barbara is standing alongside the tower in which she was imprisoned by her father. Her head is now bare but she would originally have worn a crown or circlet. St Barbara was one of the most popular subjects with sculptors working in Malines (Mechelen, Belgium), and about 15 statuettes of her are known. In the late Middle Ages people thought that St Barbara would offer protection from dying before receiving Holy Communion. Statues of her were therefore particularly suited to hospitals and homes. She was also the patron saint of groups such as artillerymen (harquebusiers) and sailors who were at risk of sudden death.

Physical description

St Barbara is shown standing, alongside her attribute of the tower, which is painted with simulated bricks. She holds a book in her left hand, painted with lines of pseudo-text. She has long, gilded hair, and the top of her head is carved to have accommodated a crown or circlet which is now lost, though the end of wire embedded in her head is visible. She wears a gown and mantle. Originally the gown was red, and the mantle gold, but much of the polychromy and guilding has been lost. The saint has also lost her right hand, and the front of the bottom edge has been sliced away. The top of the tower is also damaged.

Place of Origin

Mechelen (made)


ca. 1500 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Carved walnut, painted and gilded


Height: 29.6 cm, Width: 11 cm, Depth: 6.5 cm, Weight: 0.64 kg

Object history note

Bequeathed by Mr W B Chamberlin, Hove, Sussex, in 1937.

Historical context note

Figures of St Barbara were very popular products of the Malines carvers. About fifteen statuettes survive. This figure is very similar to several other examples, showing how the workshops churned out such products to meet popular demand. A particularly similar example is in the Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels (see Williamson 2002), with an identical colour scheme for the saint's dress, the same head and hair type, cut away to take a crown and a very similar castle and book arrangement.
Stylistically there is more similarity to Brussels work of the late 15th century than to later Malines production, placing this figure relatively early in the date range, probably around 1500.
St Barbara was thought to offer protection from dying without the last rites (a serious concern of many in the later Middle Ages). For this reason, she was often chosen as the patron saint of confraternities whose members had dangerous professions (eg artillerymen and sailors).

Descriptive line

Statuette of St Barbara

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Williamson, Paul, Netherlandish Sculpture 1450-1550, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2002. 160p., ill. ISBN 1851773738.
Comte J de Borchgrave d'Altena, 'Statuettes malinoises', Bulletin des Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, XXXI, 1959, p.61, fig.54.
W. Godenne, 'Préliminaires à l'inventaire général des statuettes d'orgine malinoise présumées des XVe et XVIe siècles', Handelingen van de Koninklijke Kring voor Oudheidkunde, Letteren en Kunst van Mechelen (Bulletin du Cercle Archéologique, Littéraire et Artistique de Malines), 1959, cat. no. LXXIII, p.31-33


Walnut; Gilt; Paint


Painting; Carving; Gilding

Subjects depicted

Christianity; Book


Sculpture; Religion; Christianity; Books


Sculpture Collection

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