Thank you, Santa Barbara, thank you very much

By: Teresa Díaz Canals


“‘There are things that cannot be said’,
And it’s true. But this can’t be said,
it’s what you have to write.”
Maria Zambrano
Why it’s written

Robert Campin (Tournai, Belgium, 1375–1444) was a painter known as the master of Flémalle, an intellectual of great theological knowledge and celebrated as the main figure of the Flemish school in the 15th century. One of his famous paintings is called Santa Barbara (1438) and is located in the Prado Museum in Madrid. This painting has as its protagonist the lady of the elements of nature, enclosed by her father Dioscoro in a tower to keep her away from possible suitors. The Golden Legend of James of Maelstrom tells that the father had to travel before the tower was finished and the girl instructed the masons to build three windows to pray to the Holy Trinity. When Barbara’s father returns, she discovers that the young woman was a Christian. He ordered to whip her, but the whips became feathers. Such was the father’s professed hatred of Christianity, that he himself, full of anger, decides to murder his daughter by cutting off his head; at that instant he was struck by lightning and turned into a fireball. Hence the belief that this saint protects from lightning.
In the image you can see a girl sitting on a wooden bench with a book in her hands – the Holy Scriptures – that she holds with a cloth so as not to touch it directly, in a sign of respect. It is located with its back to the light of a fire burning inside a chimney, which symbolizes the purifying function of evils and, in the background, a cross-shaped window through which light enters and the passage of a knight is observed. You can also see the construction of a tower, in which Barbara would be locked up. In it are crossed illuminated and gloomed spaces.
Maria Zambrano was very impressed with this dedication of the Belgian painter. The Spanish writer stated on one occasion that she attended to enjoy this work of art, that it had been part of her life in an essential way, although she never expressed anything like that it was the best painting she had ever seen. This was not a question, for he considered that every painting constituted a privileged space not only of contemplation, but also of participation. So much to look at and attend to her when she visited the museum where she was, she ended up looking at her until the end of her existence in her memory. Such was the shock generated within him that thinking of the figure incorporated into his being caused him calmness, in the face of so much injustice and so much violence existing. José Lezama Lima’s great friend narrated about that mood, about that appeasability, which once, in the midst of a bombing during the Madrid siege, sang with another great Spanish poet a Sevillian. An envoy from a French newspaper was astonished to hear them and rebuked them: “You singing and dying there.” In the face of such reproach Mary, in turn, asked her, “And how do you know that we are going to finish the song?” 1
In the person who writes, an eagerness to reveal is born, an irrepressible eagerness to communicate the revealed. 2 to publish the found secret which also produces some effect, a kind of special feeling, which is nothing more than an urgent need to make someone know something. Community between writers and readers, which is not born in the time when the delivered is read, but in the very act of writing.
The admiration and feeling that aroused in the Zambrano the aforementioned painting of Santa Barbara did not eliminate, however, the awareness that he possessed about the care that must be taken before the icons. “Every icon must be released,” he said. Look with the soul, with intelligence, even with the body. Knowledge starts badly from schematic experiences. Without completely detaching itself from the being-there of the image, it is released. The view says many things at once in countless nuances. All he knew was that St. Barbara was a shared vision, she was there for God, for all of us. Remember that a maid named Gregoria took her as a child to the convent of San Juan de la Cruz. In that place the then teenager asked the maid, “What is a saint?” And the first answered, “Someone who is very close to God and, at the same time, with us.” Ω

1 See Rosa Rius Gatell: “De María Zambrano y Bárbara: The Freed Icon”, in Papers of the Seminary of Maria Zambrano.
2 María Zambrano: “Why it is written”, in Towards a knowledge about the soul, Madrid, Alianza Editorial, S.A., 2012, p. 39.

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