Thursday, September 11, 2008

Just whose skull is it anyway?

Lest you think the veneration of relics is a thing of the past, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. Santa Barbara’s skull and femur just made a much-heralded appearance at St Augustine’s in Ossining. The bones did not come alone but were accompanied by no less than 18 prelates and potentates and ossuary guardians from Venice, where the skull and femur usually reside. Other body parts can be found in Cairo and Kiev.
Why St Barbara? On account of her pagan father being struck by lightning in retribution for the beheading of Barbara, she is the patron saint of firefighters and as anyone who has not been in a coma for the past seven years knows, on the anniversary of 9/11 we honor firefighters.
The story of Saint Barbara, as related in The Golden Legend, is yet another tale of a converted virgin defying her pagan father’s plans for her marriage. She was, of course, very beautiful and so her father, Dioscoros, kept her in a tower to prevent her from being seen. Then he went off on a journey and while he was away his workmen were constructing a bath-house according to his specifications. Barbara came down from her tower one day and had them add a third window to the bathhouse, to symbolize the Trinity (and hence proclaim her faith). When Dioscosos returned and discovered this architectural change, and the reason for it, he was furious and took Barbara to a judge to be condemned. Which she was. And her father volunteered to do the beheading himself. Which he did. Immediately after he was struck by lightning.

Depending upon which version you read, this martyrdom occurred in Rome, Antioch, Tuscany, Heliopolis, or Nicomedia. In the Middle Ages Barbara was especially popular as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers called upon for succor in the time of the plague. Her patronage against fire and lightning led to more patronage, of gunners, canonnists, military architects and miners. There is even an honorary military society called the Order of Saint Barbara, based in Oklahoma.

Were it not for the relics it should not bother us that Saint Barbara probably never existed. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints (as you must know by now, my source of all sources): “There is no evidence of any early local cultus which would rescue it from being classed in the category of pure romance.” And “it is quite certain that her legend is spurious.”

Which brings us to the question of that skull and femur: whose are they?

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