Skip to Content

Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Hessett, Suffolk (†St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) C.15

St Barbara

St Barbara, Hessett

A virgin-saint of extremely doubtful historical authenticity whose cult was nevertheless popular throughout Europe. Accounts of her story vary, but according to the version in the Golden Legend, Barbara was shut up by her father in a high tower to keep her safe from lustful eyes. Having heard of the new religion, she secretly corresponded with the great early Christian teacher Origen, who converted her. She persuaded builders employed by her father to add a third window, in honour of the Trinity, to the tower, which enraged her father when he returned home.

Versions of the story after this point are wayward, but Jacobus de Voragine, author of the Golden Legend, maintains that after Barbara had made various attempts to escape her father’s confinement, he finally beheaded her with his own hands, at which point ‘this most cruel father’ was himself fatally struck by lightning and consumed by fire, ‘so that not a vestige of him remained’.¹

This dismal tale of paternal cruelty towards independent-minded daughters is probably enough in itself to ensure Barbara’s abiding popularity. She is sometimes shown with other attributes, such as a chalice or peacock/ostrich feather, but her tower, as shown here at Hessett, is by far the most popular. It is enormous, and may well have the requisite three windows, although details are unclear now. The saint is a well painted, quite graceful figure, and her very long hair is abundant even by the standards of virgin saints.

There are other paintings at Hessett, including a Warning to Sabbath Breakers and a Seven Deadly Sins, as well as some very good stained glass.

Website of St Ethelbert’s, Hessett

¹quoted in Anna Jameson, Sacred & Legendary Art, Vol.11, London, 1857, p.493