According to legend, St. Barbara was the extremely beautiful daughter of a wealthy heathen named Dioscorus, who lived near Nicomedia in Asia Minor. Because of her singular beauty and fearful that she be demanded in marriage and taken away from him, he jealously shut her up in a tower to protect her from the outside world.
Shortly before embarking on a journey, he commissioned a sumptuous bathhouse to be built for her in the tower, approving the design before he departed. Barbara had heard of the teachings of Christ, and 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 God’s 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. As her belief became firm, she directed that the builders redesign the bathhouse her father had planned, adding another window so that the three windows might symbolize the Holy Trinity. She also traced a cross in the marble of the bath. Upon his return, her father was wild with rage that she had disobeyed his instructions regarding the bathhouse windows, and when he learned their religious significance, he drew his sword to kill her. St. Barbara fell on her knees in prayer and was miraculously transported to a mountain. Here she was found by a shepherd who betrayed her to Dioscorus. She was dragged before Marcian, the prefect of the province, who decreed that she be tortured and put to death by beheading. Dioscorus himself carried out the death sentence. On his way home he was struck by lightning and his body consumed.
Saint Barbara lived and died about the year 300 AD. She was venerated as early as the seventh century. The place of her martyrdom is variously given as Heliopolis, a town in Egypt, and as Nicomedia, Asia Minor. The year varies from 235 AD to 303 AD. 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, lightning, fires and sudden death.
When gunpowder made its appearance in the Western world, Saint Barbara was invoked for aid against accident resulting from explosions. Since some of the earlier artillery pieces often blew up instead of firing their projectile, Saint Barbara became the patroness of the artillerymen. She is also traditionally the patron of armourers, gunsmiths, miners and anyone else who worked with cannon and explosives. She is invoked against thunder and lightning and all accidents arising from explosions of gunpowder.
Saint Barbara is represented in art as standing by a tower with three windows, often holding a chalice, or carrying the palm of a martyr in her hand. She may also be portrayed with the Host or Bible above. Sometimes there are cannons nearby.