Given the degree of focus required in building exhibitions during the school year, research into artworks not germane to the “art of the day” is often suspended due to lack of time. However, with activity in the gallery modified due to pandemic protocol, a question asked in late August by a lone student visiting the gallery between classes awakened my interest. Standing in front of a 16th century life-size polychrome wooden statue depicting a Catholic saint, which I knew was initially identified as Saint Catherine, and then, some forty years after the gift was received, labeled as Saint Barbara, she pointed to the label and, with all sincerity, asked, “why does this not feel right?” There are few questions students ask that surprise me, but this one certainly did. The authority of the label aside, she somehow found the title incorrect. Whatever they are teaching in Humanities today, inquiry in the presence of primary artifacts is an imperative ability to foster. After a ten-minute conversation about saintly attributes, Saint Barbara, myth and late medieval European sculpture, I decided it was time for a closer look.

Given in 1968 by John Wesley Turk, a 1919 graduate of Culver Military Academy, the statue was intended as an addition to Culver’s first experiment with an art gallery. Understood to be limewood, a soft close-grained wood used across southern Europe and particularly favored by carvers in the German region of Swabia, an examination of the back reveals the statue to be carved from the larger half of one log. The heartwood, softer and more prone to decay, has been removed to stabilize the curing, leaving an opening over a meter long, 10cm wide by 11cm deep, running from mid-shoulder to the base. Two iron braces, perhaps attached in the 19th century, bridge the back. The surface polychrome, though much diminished, is still evident throughout the sculpture.

The figure is female, with a long dark dress covered by a green mantle or cloak. Her blue eyes are small with pronounced eyelids, giving her a dreamy appearance. She has a long straight nose and red lips that, from certain angles, appear to be gently smiling. Her right hand steadies a vertically placed sword at her mid-section while an ornately covered book is seen under her left arm. Since every work of Christian art employs purposeful communicative components to make the spiritual accessible, these two objects, sword and book, are clearly to be read as signs or attributes regarding the life of the saint. The sword is an indication of her martyrdom and the book refers to her reliance on knowledge of the Christian faith.

Sword and book aside, the saint is notable for her ample curling hair emerging from a red ribbon-like band carved around the crown of her head. The band, not readily visible to most viewers, is decorated with a repeating cruciform pattern of four circles placed inside a diagonal square set on corner. Her hair twists and curls, wreathing her face before cascading across her shoulders and falling to below her breast. She wears a black square neck gown with sleeves lined in red and a pale high-necked chemise. There are visible signs of yellow and red underpaint below the black dress. Covering her left shoulder, the green cloak or mantle with carved beaded trim wraps around her body. As it emerges under her right arm, a generous pattern of folds animates the right side of the sculpture. The mantle crosses her mid-section and is gathered in place by her right hand pressing the sword toward her body. Over the whole of the green mantle are red symbols, a mix of random stars and variants of the Christian cross.  

Standing contrapposto with her weight on her left leg, the saint dips her right foot slightly down and forward off the edge of the base, while her left foot turns outward. Her shoes, thick-soled and round-toed with a recessed toe cap, are a variant of illustrations of practical early Renaissance footwear worn by the lower classes. Pointed toed shoes were reserved for the upper class. With her right knee pushing slightly forward, her right-hand crosses over the front of her torso to press the sword’s diagonally wrapped grip and scent-stopper pommel into the front of her body. Scent-stopper pommels appeared toward the end of the 14th century, becoming more common in the 15th and 16th, which corresponds with the suggested date of the statue. Ninety-five centimeters long with a straight cross guard and a flat double-edged blade with a pointed tip, the sword is the most prominent object held by the saint, and its presence, as one of two clearly defined attributes, aids the faithful in recalling the saint’s story.

The second prominent attribute is the brown and black book with red-edged pages tucked under her upper left arm. The cover is carved with a diagonal grid pattern echoing the saint’s head band; each of the diamond patterns contains four round leaf-like forms. Over the side of the book is a plain clasp with a tooled strap. The presence of a book, as an attribute, moves beyond mere literacy to express a degree of understanding on the part of the saint. Given the sculpture’s likely placement within a religious house of worship, it is no mere coincidence the 16th century donor chose to have the saint holding a book, the rising rates of literacy among women in a post-Guttenberg world may have inclined such interest. Below the book, the saint’s left hand is pressed against her body with an opening between the thumb and fingers. A small thin block of wood is held between the lower part of the thumb and the middle two fingers. This may be a sculptural support, or it may have once held an object.

Identifying the Saint

An article written in Culver’s Alumni Magazine in 1968 describes the statue of Saint Catherine as being in the gallery at the (then) Music and Art building. Sometime in the1970’s, the sculpture was moved to Culver’s Memorial Chapel and the gallery became a classroom. As noted above, the 1994 appraisal records the work as Saint Barbara, though it is unknown who determined this change of identity. Both saints are among a group identified as Virgin Martyrs, a small number of women honored since the 5th century in Catholic and Orthodox communities for the distinction of not only heroically dying for their faith but also for their practice of sexual renunciation; one of the defining characteristics of early Christian Communities. The presence of the sword as a symbol of martyrdom, is highly significant in connecting the statue to someone from this group. Though the donor left little in the way of provenance when gifting the work to the school, a little background research should help us understand the statue, as there is much to consider.

Though today’s readers may have some context for deconstructing Virgin Martyr as a linked term, a short dive into the importance of the idea behind this designation will benefit our examination of the statue.  The term Virgin Martyr rose from the century’s old Christian practice of sexual renunciation and/or the exercise of self-constraint in sexual relations as a personal response to conversion. Men and women, both lay and religious, who freely chose to remain in the virginal state were recognized as doing so in advance of developing a degree of personal holiness that would, over time, spill out into the wider community of believers. Female virgins, being undisturbed by sexual relations and the process of childbirth, assumed the distinction of being called Virgin as living reminders of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Women under religious or lay vows of virginity, who were also called to martyrdom, became exemplars of the Christian faith. These were acclaimed by name in prayer, some even in the canon of the Mass through liturgical intercessions, and, having an assured presence in heaven, were worthy of emulation and iconographic veneration by the faithful.[i]

Awareness of a few aspects concerning the evolution and development of saintly recognition will also help us in determining whose story fits Culver’s statue.  Prior to the 12th century, the process was regional rather than universal in the Catholic Church. During the first thousand years of Christianity, public acclaim by a Bishop alone would suffice to declare someone a saint. This might follow hundreds of years of oral tradition and private veneration before being recorded in writing. After the 12th century most causes for sainthood involved scrutiny by the Catholic hierarchy in Rome to validate the names and stories of saints throughout Christendom. The Golden Legend, composed by Jacobus de Veragine in the mid-13th century, brought together a great number of saintly stories and was widely copied and read. The upside of this is that a Virgin Martyr matching Culver’s statue would more than likely be drawn from the list of Virgin Martyrs found the Roman Calendar and their attributes would be recorded. Most Virgin Martyrs lived well before the 12th century and their stories, regardless of fanciful embellishment acquired between oral and written transcription, provide the attributes necessary in identifying each saint when depicted. Given the prominence Virgin Martyrs maintained in the late Medieval to early Renaissance time period in which Culver’s statue was carved, Culver’s sculpture more than likely depicts someone identifiable. The difficulty lies in knowing which components of the statue are meant to be read and which are simply artistic conventions.

There are a few reasons why it would be possible to assume the Culver statue was either Saint Catherine or Saint Barbara, but there are also several problems, and they have everything to do with the defining attributes traditionally accompanying representations of these saints in the time period in which Culver’s statue was carved. Saint Catherine of Alexandria is one of the most celebrated of the Virgin Martyrs, and, Mary the mother of Jesus aside, is the second most depicted woman in paintings and sculpture from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Any unknown female saint with a sword and a book might logically be assumed to be Saint Catherine as these are among her many attributes. This falls apart, however, in consideration of Saint Catherine’s two most defining attributes appearing in nearly all depictions of her from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Since many female martyrs died by sword and are depicted with this attribute, Saint Catherine is further identified through the presence of a broken wheel with which her legend states she was threatened torture. This appears most frequently in depictions of Saint Catherine in both painting and sculpture but is nowhere present in Culver’s statue. Additionally, being considered a scholar, she also, at times, carries an open book. Again, many saints are depicted with books. Saint Catherine of Alexandria, however, is reputed to have been of noble birth, and has a crown placed either on her head or lying at her feet with the palm on martyrdom.

If we were to search for evidence of a missing crown, we might begin by examining the top of the head of the statue where we would find a sizable break on the back of the head. The break includes a section of ribbon before which the whole of the top of the head is rough cut, lined with chisel marks, and unpainted like the back of the statue. If the statue was meant to be placed in a niche or against a wall, this would be consistent with other sculptures from this time period being rough cut or unpainted in areas outside the view of the faithful. Could there, however, have been a crown perched above the red ribbon?  It is possible but seems unlikely a carved crown would have been placed over or against the ribbon. The rim of the ribbon shows no missing attachments except for the break in the back. It is conceivable that a halo may have been attached to the back of the head or, of more functional interest, a possible wall brace assuring the saint remain upright in her placement in the church.

This leaves us with the question of a missing palm. A line in the statue’s description in the 1994 appraisal suggests a palm may have been connected to the hand. The appraisal also identifies the statue as Saint Barbara, though it is unclear if the appraiser was aware of the statue formerly being identified as Saint Catherine. At the time of this appraisal, however, the saint was missing the top part of the fore finger on her left hand and part of both her right forefinger and ring finger. These have since been restored, and though the small piece of original wood between the saint’s left thumb and middle fingers is troubling, there is no indication of any missing attachments to other parts of the sculpture. If the saint did hold a palm in her left hand, it seems unlikely it would have been attached solely to her forefinger as palms in sculptures of similar age are attached in several places. Its presence might simply be a support for the open hand. Additionally, the book under the saint’s arm extends over the crevice between the thumb and the hand making it doubtful anything of substance would be placed there. Lack of evidence of and additional attachments outside this one block makes the possible existence of a palm highly unlikely, but the missing crown is the more important attribute, and its absence paired with the missing broken wheel rules out Saint Catherine.

Saint Barbara has even more dissimilarities and it is hard to imagine why anyone would have knowingly identified the statue as depicting her. The 7th century record of her 3rd century death seems to have been scripted from some twisted Virgin Martyr plot generator, though she is not alone in this distinction. Barbara is the daughter of a rich pagan man who confines her to a tower for her protection while he travels. Upon return, he becomes enraged when she professes herself to be a Christian. While pursuing her, Barbara is magically transported to a mountainside pasture with two shepherds, one of whom chooses to help her while the other assists in her capture and, for this transgression, is turned to stone. Once caught, her father drags her before the pagan provincial magistrate who delights in ordering her stripped and tortured with burning torches and misogynistic amputations in her father’s presence. Even with this, miracles occur, and her faith remains intact. With the magistrate failing to get Barbara to recant her Christian faith, her father finally beheads her, though he is struck by lightning upon returning home. Barbara’s defining attributes, therefore, include small chains, a three-windowed tower, a chalice, lightning, a palm and a crown. None of these are present in Culver’s statue, though, like Catherine, the sword is part of her story. So, given this, how might Culver’s statue be identified?

Before looking too far afield, it should be mentioned that Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara were two of the three women within the group of saints known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Devotion to the cult of the Fourteen Holy Helpers became popular during the rise of the Black Plague in the 14th century. The third of the three “Holy Maids” is Saint Margaret of Antioch. Unfortunately, though also ultimately dispatched by the sword, Saint Margaret falls short in being linked to Culver’s saint in a story even more fantastic than Saint Barbara’s. The legend of St. Margaret, being declared spurious as early as the 5th century (she was swallowed by a dragon who spit her up because the cross she was wearing irritated his stomach), would most likely have been forgotten had not her cult revived during the Crusades. Saint Margaret’s defining attributes include a slain dragon and the hammer with which the dragon was slain. Curiously, being a Virgin Martyr, she is also the patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women.

Saintly Attributes

Since these three saints share the distinction of dying by the sword, and all appear on the list of Virgin Martyrs, to expand our inquiry, it might be helpful to look at other Virgin Martyrs to ascertain the applicability of any of their saintly attributes to the Culver statue. First, however, we should revisit the statue to see what, in addition to the sword and book, might be present to help us. As stated above, every work of Christian art employs purposeful communicative components to make the spiritual accessible. Tempting though it is to look for symbolism in every detail, imposing our own references upon the sculpture would not serve us well, so we should be careful to determine when an attribute is present and when it is simply an artistic convention designed to aid the aesthetic experience of the work. For example, most Virgin Martyrs appear with a crown as a symbol of their martyrdom. Our saint has a carved red ribbon around the crown of her head. Though not a royal sign in and of itself, it may be an indication of an understood degree of social status. In identifying any attribute, a clear connection either to a saint’s life or honor as a Virgin Martyr should be present. We should begin, then, by examining any unusual features beyond the sword and the book.

One such feature may be the saint’s shoes. In gathering research for this article, I have looked at scores of paintings and sculptures of female saints. Few, if any, show footwear. Additionally, our saint’s shoes are not the footwear worn by the daughter of a king, governor or rich merchant recorded in typical early Virgin Martyr stories. Pointed toes were fashionable in the Middle Ages, especially among nobles, merchants, and landed gentry. Our saint’s shoes are plain and more consistent with peasant footwear. If she had a veil, her shoes might cause us to identify her as a nun. Though there was a resurgence of round-toed shoes in the late 16th century among the gentry, our statue is believed to predate this. Given the step off the pedestal pose, the sculptor may be encouraging us to understand that the shoes are a defining characteristic as they peek from beneath the saint’s mantle and skirt saying, “This is important, please notice the saint’s shoes.”

Another curious aspect to be considered is the above-mentioned piece of wood between the saint’s thumb and middle fingers of her left hand. This is the piece of wood that led the 1994 appraiser to suggest the saint had once held a martyr’s palm. There are aspects about the presence of the wood, its size and shape, worthy of exploration. When viewed from a vantage point similar to what would be seen by a person in prayer before the statue, the object is reminiscent of a coin. If this were a coin, it would likely be an attribute. When viewed from above, however, any imagined roundness dissipates and we clearly see a squared block with evidence of original paint, possibly left to give support between the thumb and the fingers.  Given the sculpture’s 500-year history, there is a remote chance the block was originally rounded, so we should not rule out its importance.

One last feature to be considered is the saint’s deep green mantle or cloak. Green, from the 12th century on, was symbolic of faith and immortality.[ii] Alone, however, this cannot stand, as all saints exhibit faith, and a green mantle is not a defined saintly attribute. The garment, however, has more to offer. Even in its diminished state, we see the seemingly random appearance of freely drawn six-point star-like forms, as well as three larger symbols with more pronounced design. One, on the saint’s left, is reminiscent of a radiant sun while another, on the right, recalls an anchor cross form, though it is diminished considerably.  The third symbol, gracing the bent knee, is a clearly defined drawing of a fleur-de-lis cross. The fleur-de-lis cross, a variant form of the primary Christian symbol, recalls the conversion of the King of France, Clovis I in 496AD, who, while in battle, was guided across a river by observing a path of waterlilies. The fleur-de-lis became the symbol of French royalty and often appears in images of French saints. Though much deteriorated, the cross-like symbols are readable, and thus, are likely to be more than mere decoration. If even remotely purposeful, it would be prudent to note any connection to France as we apply the known attributes to the list of Virgin Martyrs recognized before the end of the 16th century.

Three cross-form variants on the statue’s mantle: the third being the Fleur-de-lis Cross

Virgin Martyrs as Possible Candidates

Christian Virgin Martyr cults rose to prominence in the 5th through the 15th century with 35 of the approximate 50 Virgin Martyrs being recorded as dying prior to the legalization of Christianity in 313 AD.  Having eliminated Saint Catherine, Saint Barbara and Saint Margaret, we find an additional fifteen Virgin Martyrs recorded as dying by sword. We then eliminate those saints who are most often depicted with defining attributes which we do not see in Culver’s statue; Saint Cecelia’s musical instruments or Saint Lucy’s eyes on a plate, for example, the list is narrowed to eight: Saint Venera (d. 143), Saint Martina of Rome (d. 228), Saint Euthalia of Sicily (3rdc.), Saint Christina of Bolsena (3rdc.), Saint Justina of Padua (d. 304), Saint Olivia of Palermo (d. 448), Saint Dymphna (d. 7thc.) and Saint Belina (d. 1153). Each of these saints have stories that include the sword, but only one has a book as a defining attribute: Justina of Padua.

The Patron Saint of Padua, a city west of Venice, Italy, Justina is believed to have died during the Diocletian persecutions. The daughter of a noble Paduan family who had converted to Christianity, Justina practiced charity, was devoted to learning, and, as a young woman, took a vow of perpetual virginity. During the persecutions begun under Emperor Nero, the Paduan local Prefect, Maximian, imprisoned many Christians. Justina, being a young noble woman, would visit the Christian prisoners to comfort and support them. Her activities drew the suspicion of the guards, and Maximian ordered her captured. Brought before the prefect, Justina’s bearing and outward beauty were evident to all present as she confessed and eloquently defended her faith in Christ. Infatuated, Maximian made repeated attempts to dissuade her from her belief in the Christian God. His efforts, however, were no match for Justina’s intellect. Frustrated, he ordered her slain, and a guard immediately drove a sword into her breast, ending her life.

Saint Justina, therefore, is often depicted as a crowned princess with a sword protruding from her breast. Additional symbols include a lily, a book and a cross placed upon the devil’s head. She is also, at times, accompanied by a unicorn as a sign of her virginity. Given the sword of Culver’s statue being placed in front, as well as the lack of any reference to other common attributes beyond the book, this does not appear to be an easy fit.  If we expand our possible signs and symbols to include the peasant shoes, Saint Justina, being depicted as a princess, is less of a match. However, if we take the shoes into consideration and factor in the presence of the fleur-de-lis cross on the saint’s green mantle, revisiting the list will open a certain parallel with the story of a humble yet rarely depicted saint from France: Saint Belina.  

According to early 20th century English Hagiographer, Reverend Sabine BaringGould’s 16 volume Lives of The Saints, [iii] Saint Belina was born in Landreville, Champagne in eastern France. Her parents were villains, a higher form of serf, living under the protection of John Paterne, the Lord of Pradines and D’Arcy. Owning their own land but bound to the Lord’s service, Belina’s parents raised their daughter to know and hold dear the practice of the Catholic faith. The people of Landreville came to value Belina’s gentle goodness as she freely gave herself to care for the sick and visits with the dying.

When Belina was 16, she became betrothed to the son of a village family of similar status. Her parents, needing the Lord’s permission for their daughter to marry, petitioned Lord John Paterne for his blessing. Paterne, all too aware of Belina’s beauty, surprised the family by suggesting an alternative arrangement. Rather than marry a local villager, Belina should become his mistress, an arrangement that might improve her family’s station in life. Disgusted by this sinful possibility, Belina rejected Lord Paterne’s proposal.

On September 8, 1153, Lord Paterne, finding Belina tending the family’s sheep alone in her father’s pasture, decided to take what he desired by force. Belina, a farmer’s daughter, gave no ground, and physically deterred his intention to ravish her. Frustrated with desire, Paterne unsheathed his sword, cut off her head and left her dead in the field.

When Belina’s death was discovered, the peasants of Landreville rose as one body, stormed his stronghold and burned it to the ground. In their outrage they almost killed Lord Paterne but, disguising himself to avoid recognition, he escaped. News of these events eventually reached both the King of France and the Pope in Rome. Pope Anastasius IV excommunicated John Paterne and removed his titles while King Eustace IV confiscated his lands.  Belina’s life and resistance to Lord Paterne in defense of her chastity led to religious devotion for her intercession as a Virgin Martyr. Canonized in 1203 by Pope Innocent III, her remains were exhumed in the presence of a Papal legate, the Bishop of Langres, and the Abbots of Clairvaux, Molesmes Abbey, and the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Mores. Belina’s relics were transferred to Mores where they resided in a place of veneration until the abbey was closed and dismantled during the anti-religious furor following the French Revolution of 1789. Baring-Gould records that “Most of the relics of the saintly virgin were dispersed and lost at the Revolution, but some particles of bone remain in a bust at Landreville.” [1] These are in The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin in Landreville, France. A chapel, built over the site of her burial in the 15th century, remains a place of veneration.


Returning to our sculpture, the sword, the fleur-de-lis cross, and the peasant shoes may cause us to welcome this story as naming Culver’s saint. We might also accept the book as referencing Belina’s steadfast faith and the red ribbon around her head as a symbol of her peasant martyrdom. But what of the hand? Might it have held something necessary for us to consider? Unfortunately, images of Saint Belina created before the French Revolution are illusive, and with Mores Abbey, the place most likely to have commissioned a statue, destroyed, there is little with which to compare. This, however, does not mean Culver’s saint is not Saint Belina. It just means that we cannot be 100% sure.

Lacking any clear provenance capable of supporting or refuting renaming the statue, we are left, at best, with a tenuous assertion. We might, then, err on the side of caution and title the statue An Unknown Saint (possibly St. Belina) as our best guess presents a better option than simply assuming Culver’s statue is one of the many created images of Saint Catherine or Saint Barbara. We do this because, ultimately, what we ask of the statue is not to be who we say it is, but to fill us with a little of the 16th century spirit in which it was created; to allow ourselves, as we sit, to imagine a world on the cusp of the revival of art and the birth of modern science, a world where symbol and sign point to a deeper dive into what it means to be fully human, and to embrace, for one small moment, the presence of a young girl whose understanding of faith could lead her to affirm that there are some things worth dying for, because, for the believing Christian, death is simply a door to the joy of a greater beginning.

[1] The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Lives of the Saints, Volume II (of 16): February, by Sabine Baring-Gould, Page 344

[i] An amazingly in-depth study of early Christian practices underpinning the cult of the Virgin Martyr exists in Peter Brown’s, The Body and Society, Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Columbia University Press, 1988.

[ii] Image and Belief, “Of the Significance of Colours”: The Iconography of Colour in Romanesque and Early Gothic Book Illumination, by Andreas Petzold, Edited by Colum Hourihane, University of Princeton Press, 1999


Posted by theunintendedcurator

My name is Bob Nowalk. I am a Master Instructor Emeritus of Culver Academies, a college preparatory boarding school in Culver Indiana. Having retired at the conclusion of the 2022 school year, I plan to continue working to share stories about art, artists, and the creative process through this blog and the exhibitions at The Unintended Curator Gallery at 114 North Main Street in Culver, Indiana. Please follow us on facebook for current offerings. Thanks for visiting.

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