Saint Barbara


Jan van Eyck
Maaseik 1380/ 1400 - Bruges 1441
oil on panel
31 x 18 cm
Inventory number 410

This panel by the Flemish Primitive painter Jan van Eyck tells the story of Saint Barbara. Her father, a Syrian nobleman and pagan, wanted no-one to lay eyes on his daughter, so he locked her up in a fortified tower, where she led a life of luxury. When her father wanted to give her in marriage, she refused. Hoping to make her change her mind, he occasionally gave her permission to leave the tower. During one of these outings, Barbara converted to Christianity. As a symbol of the Holy Trinity, she had a third window opening made in her prison. Enraged, her father handed her over to the governor, who had her tortured. But to no avail, for every night her wounds would heal. In the end, she was condemned to death and beheaded by her own father.
In the painting, Barbara, a Christian martyr, is shown with a prayer book. The palm branch in her left hand symbolises her triumph over death. Barbara did, after all, choose for Jesus and eternal life. Behind her, labourers are constructing a monumental Gothic spire, a symbol for the rise of Christianity.


The extremely fine detail of the deadcolouring or underpainting is unique and innovative. After having completed the sky, van Eyck appears to have interrupted his work. Saint Barbara is considered to be the oldest unfinished panel in Netherlandish art. Nonetheless, the artist signed the painting, which raises the intriguing possibility that he regarded the work as finished.

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