Jacopo Palma was born near Bergamo about 1480. He is called Palma Vecchio (old) to distinguish him from his nephew, Jacopo Palma, also an artist. The latter is called Palma Giovane (young) . Like all the Venetian artists, Palma Vecchio excelled in color. He had three beautiful daughters. Violante, the most beautiful, was Titian’s first love, and it is her face which we see in many of his early pictures. Titian worked in a style which is more closely allied to the style of Palma than to any other artist of the time. Palma Vecchio was greatly beloved by his brother artists and by the Venetians. He was called the “Gentle Palma.” He died in 1528. His masterpiece is the Santa Barbara, in the church of Santa Maria Formosa in Venice. The original church was built by a Bishop of Uderzo in obedience to the Virgin, who desired him to erect a church in her honor wherever he saw a white cloud rest. The cloud floated before him and where it rested he built the church of St. Mary the Beautiful. It was rebuilt in 1492. Over the first altar to the right is Santa Barbara. It is a portrait of Violante. She is standing in a majestic attitude, looking upward with inspired eyes. Her dress is a rich, warm brown, and over it a mantle of deep crimson. Her hair is pale gold, a white scarf is knotted in her hair and diadem. In color, in richness, in softness, and in expression it is unsurpassed. Cannon are at her feet, and her tower is seen behind her.
The picture was painted for the Bombardieri. Santa Barbara was the patroness of soldiers, who come here to venerate her shrine. Santa Barbara was the only daughter of Dioscorus of Heliopolis, a very rich noble. She was wonderfully beautiful and her father fearing she would marry and leave him, shut her up in a high tower. The stars were the chief objects of her interest, and as she watched them night after night, and meditated on them by day, she came to believe that the gods of wood and stone worshipped by her father could not have created these wonders.
By some means she heard of the famous Christian teacher Origen, who lived at Alexandria ; she longed to know of this new doctrine he was teaching ; she wrote him a letter, to which he replied, sending it by one of his own disciples disguised as a physician, who perfected her conversion and baptized her.
Her father was absent on a long journey. Before he left he sent a skilled architect and workmen to make a bath room of wonderful beauty in the tower. One day Barbara came to inspect the progress of the work. Seeing only two windows, she ordered a third to be put in. The workmen hesitated, but she said, “Do as I command, you shall be held guilt-less.” When her father returned he at once noticed this third window. He was very angry and asked his daughter why she had ordered the third window. She replied, “Know, my father, that through three windows doth the soul receive light, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and the three are one.” Her father’s rage knew no bounds.
He hated the Christians, and rather than his daughter should be one of the despised sect he would himself kill her. All his love was turned to hate, he drew his sword, she fled to the top of the tower, he pursued her, but an angel hid her from his sight, and carried her away. A shepherd betrayed her hiding place to her father. He had her put into a dungeon where she was scourged and tortured. She never faltered for an instant, rather rejoicing to suffer for Christ’s sake. Her father, seeing that she would never yield, carried her away to a mountain and put her to death with his own sword.
She is sometimes represented holding the palm of the martyr; sometimes the chalice and wafer.
Those in danger of lightning, firearms and sudden death invoke the protection of Santa Barbara. Her peculiar attribute is the tower.
It sometimes has three windows, sometimes two.
The two most celebrated pictures in which she appears are the Sistine Madonna and the Santa Barbara of Palma Vecchio.
( Originally Published 1912 )
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