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Work of the Week: Saint Barbara

Jolly Saint Nicholas may be the most famous gift giver of the holiday season, but in December many Europeans also celebrate Saint Barbara, depicted in this painting by Jean Bellegambe holding a feather and imprisoned in a tower. Her father, who became her warden and executioner, held Barbara captive and then beheaded her for converting to Christianity. He was instantly struck by lightning and reduced to ashes, making Barbara the patron saint of fire, lightning, and thunderstorms. Inspired by the branch from the cherry tree that Barbara tended while imprisoned, cherry branches are often brought into the home on her feast day, where they are watched to blossom on Christmas Day.

See Bellegamble's Saint Barbara in Gallery 202.

Jean Bellegambe. Saint Barbara (detail), about 1520. George F. Harding Collection.