Updated: Nov 7
Souls in waiting: depictions of Purgatory
And of that second kingdom will I sing
Wherein the human spirit doth purge itself,
And to ascend to heaven becometh worthy.
We are born and we die. Hopefully we die after a long, happy and productive life. The question that has evoked the wonder of humans through millennia is, “What happens after we die?” Can all of that quickness of life, the intensely felt emotion, the penetrating thinking, the uniqueness of personality be gone at the snuffing out of our flame? It is true that our corporal bodies do fail, decay, and disappear, but the essence, our soul, must survive to go somewhere. Our lives cannot have been born for no purpose. We wish and hope there is more after our brief loves are spent.
Most world cultures have decided that what happens after the husk that held us together dissolves into dust is that our sprit lives on – someplace. That place, that otherworld, has been conceived as many different situations, by many different cultures. Always it is determined to be much better in every way than the capricious, mercurial, earth-bound life that we all live.
Except the Greeks. The Greeks believed that there was nothing better than life and that the afterlife was just a pale shadow of life’s experience. There was the paradisiacal Elysian Fields which was strictly for the chosen elite: heroes who had transcended mortality; people who had done notable things for mankind and were chosen by the gods; or individuals that could count the Gods among their parents but who had not been elevated to the status of a full deity. As Pindar in his Odes explains: The chosen receive a life free from toil, not scraping with the strength of their arms the earth, nor the water of the sea, for the sake of a poor sustenance. But in the presence of the honored gods, those who gladly kept their oaths enjoy a life without tears, while the others undergo a toil that is unbearable to look at. Those who have persevered three times, on either side, to keep their souls free from all wrongdoing, follow Zeus' road to the end, to the tower of Cronus, where ocean breezes blow around the island of the blessed, and flowers of gold are blazing, some from splendid trees on land, while water nurtures others. With these wreaths and garlands of flowers they entwine their hands according to the righteous counsels of Rhadamanthys, whom the great father, the husband of Rhea whose throne is above all others, keeps close beside him as his partner…”. Remember, this was not the fate of everyone. The common people had the neutrality of Hades to look forward to. Generally, the Greeks did not see death as the means to ascend to Heaven as a reward for a life of virtue. Death brought no reward at all. At death, nearly all souls except the chosen elite, went to Hades. Hades was basically a grey limbo, where everything that gave life joy and fulfillment was missing. Some individuals who had particularly offended the Gods were singled out for special punishments. Two famous instances of this are the myths of Sisyphus and Tantalus. Sisyphus was punished by the Gods for cheating death twice. He was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, which always rolled back to the bottom just before it reached the top. Tantalus was damned for eternity as retribution for killing his son and trying to feed it to the Gods (the atrocities of filicide and cannibalism). His perpetual punishment was to stand in a pool of water up to his neck under a tree laden with fruit. The fruit moved out of reach when he tried to eat it, while the water drained away when he tried to drink.
But what does the Ancient Greek idea of the afterlife have to do with Christian thought on life after death? The Romans who copied the Greeks on most everything, took to the Greek idea of Hades as well. Under Roman rule, the grey, colorless limbo of Hades was the consensus of the afterlife. But when Jesus came preaching in the Roman territories, he offered an alternative to the banality of death. He offered a merit-based afterlife where those who lived in the grace of God and according to God’s laws, would be resurrected after the death of our corporal bodies and live eternally in Paradise with Him: And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. (Revelations 22:12). This alternative had its appeal and people began to listen. Everyone living in Paradise for eternity with the Gods among abundance and ease, seemed much more appealing than a grey, colorless limbo. Of course, in the Christian meritorious based system of the afterlife, there were also punishments for those souls that did not follow God’s demands. And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:42). The torments of Hell were not a deterrent to the converted, because God was conceived to be a just and forgiving God. There were ways to approach the deity to ask for forgiveness and seek atonement and still be admitted to Heaven.
Besides the punishments of Hell, Jesus’ promise of eternal life with God in Paradise was not without conditions. Before there could be life in Heaven, there had to be a Judgement of all souls. This Last Judgment required Jesus to come back to Earth a second time. This was Christ’s commitment to his followers: In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:2-3). The essence of Christianity is Christ’s resurrection from his death by crucifixion and then (after three days) his ascension into heaven as well as His promised second coming. His return at the end of time would be to judge all souls living and dead on their following of God’s laws. Unfortunately, when this would occur was not clear to the disciples or the Church Fathers. Jesus himself was unable to provide a date. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. (Matthew 24:36). It was assumed by both the disciples and the Church Fathers that the Second Coming would be soon. Early Christians lived their lives in preparation for it. This included pledging to a life of chastity to sanctify their bodies. Youth would vow to keep their virginity to be pure for the Day of Judgement.
The ideal state for Catholics is to live in God’s blessing and to avoid sin by living in concord with the teachings of Christ and the Church. Sex is considered sinful since it came about as a result of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. According to Scripture, God’s plan was for Adam and Eve to live in harmony with each other without physical passion. In the early Church, virginity was considered God’s intended, normal state for mankind. The sin of Genesis was the sin of knowledge, including carnal knowledge. Therefore, early Christians considered virginity to be necessary in order to live completely in God’s grace. Additionally, both Jesus and his mother were believed to be virgins, which amplified God’s preference for chasteness. Sexual abstinence became preferable to prepare the body for Judgement. Virginity and sexual abstinence were only the beginning of the methods needed to purify the body for it to be acceptable to God. A devotion to Christ’s teachings, attendance at Mass, confession of sins, prayers for forgiveness, and suffering, both physical and psychological, as punishment for sin, was also necessary. Early Christians believed that the highest honor and most assured way of gaining the Kingdom of Heaven was to die a virgin martyr. But Christ’s second Coming did not happen. Jesus’ clue that it should happen before the generation of Christ’s apostles had died: Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. (Matthew 16:28), proved unfounded. Later, the Church fathers determined that Christ’s return would be in the year 500, based on the number of years since the creation of Adam. When that day passed, the date was moved to the turn of the millennium in 1000 AD.
Of course, the end of the world did not happen in 1000 AD, nor in 2000 AD. The idea of the imminence of Christ’s Second Coming and Judgement Day began to diminish in importance for the faithful. Taking their cue from the Gospel of Matthew, that no one shall know the day or the hour, the Church decided that Judgement Day and the Second Coming would happen when God willed it. Since that was an indeterminant time, all Christians had to be prepared for it by continuing to live in God’s grace, including the emphasis on sexual purity. The Church itself relaxed the importance of martyrdom.
This left open the dilemma of when are our souls judged. Do we wait in our graves until the end of time for Judgement, or is it determined at our deaths whether we head to Heaven or Hell? This is still a debated topic among religious scholars. The Catholic Church decided to split the difference, deciding that upon the death of our physical bodies, we are judged individually for our virtues and our sins and allowed either entrance into the glories of Heaven or punished with the torments of Hell. They called this our Particular Judgement. On the final Judgement Day, with the return of Jesus, we will be reunited with our bodies and fulfill our destiny according to God’s will. The question remained about what to do with those souls who died not unredeemable and condemned to Hell, but also not in the perfection of grace for Heaven? There is a large middle ground of those who died “in God’s grace but imperfectly purified” as tactfully worded by the Catholic Church. The Church’s directive was to pray for these souls to prevent them from being stuck in limbo. This was not a new or original directive.
Despite the multitude of beliefs in the afterlife that mankind has developed through its many cultures, almost all of them have seen it as a necessity to honor the dead. Through sacrifices, libations, prayer, or ritual the living have deemed it prudent to keep an ongoing relation with their ancestors. It is believed that the spirits of past generations could provide information otherwise unobtainable through any other source. Spirits have a connection to the Gods or to the intercessors to the Gods. Since they live eternally outside of time, they were considered to have special knowledge about the future, the past, and the best course of action for a given situation. To prevent spirits from becoming stuck in this world to haunt the living and cause trouble, they must be remembered, and their memories tended and honored. The Christians borrowed the Roman custom of remembering and venerating the dead through proper burial and regular observances with offerings on holy days. For Christians too, the dead were an intermediary to God, especially so if one was a martyr. They were seen as intercessors, able to carry prayer to the attention of Jesus, God, the angels, or other holy figures. The practice of praying to and honoring the dead was modified by recognizing a teaching from the second book of Maccabees from the Old Testament: It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins. This teaching from the Old Testament brought in the idea that prayer for the spirits of the dead would have the effect of purifying those souls who had died in repentant sin, which would ready them for eternity with God. This idea became a popular belief among lay Christians. The Church made it a formal doctrine in 1274 at the Second Council of Lyon.
At the Council of Lyon, the Catholic Church defined a purgatorial process, whereby the souls of the dead who have died in redeemable sin can become purified through the will of God. The Council did not create a place named Purgatory. The process of purification they sanctioned, could be shortened through the prayers and indulgences (performing acts of charity and good deeds) of the living. This intervention by the living would eventually secure God’s grace and elevate the souls to Paradise. For the general Catholic populace, the idea of the process of atonement, without a place to do it was too abstract. Instead, to the people, Purgatory became a place, a third place in the Christian afterlife included with Heaven and Hell, that was the dwelling place of those souls doing penance for their sins in preparation for Heaven.
Purgatory as a place is envisioned with unrelenting fire. This is not like the fires of Hell, which consume the body painfully to torment the soul which has rejected God. The fires of Purgatory are purifying fires that cleanse the soul of the stain of sin and render it spotless and acceptable to God’s grace. The Anima Sola or the Lonely Soul, is a visual trope that is used for the depiction of Purgatory. It is the visual depiction of Purgatory through sculpture or painting that is present in many Catholic churches. It is used as a visual cue to remind the faithful to pray for the souls waiting in there. It is common to Hispanic and Southern Italian Catholicism, who share a corruption of the purgatorial belief, that the souls stuck in Purgatory cannot achieve Heaven without the intercessional help of the living. It is commonly believed that these Lonely Souls who may not have family to remember and honor them, need our prayers and dedicated acts of charity to move on to live with God. The visual depictions of the suffering in Purgatory often paired with an emotional, injunctive text, are designed to induce guilt and pity in the viewer and goad them into petitioning for their cause. This is a distortion of the official Catholic tenant regarding Purgatory. As a process of penance, the official Church stance is that the purging of a purgatorial soul will happen without the assistance of prayers from the living. While prayer directed to the souls while in their spiritual evolution may diminish their duration spent in this state of redemption, it is God ultimately who determines the length of time it will take.
The carved wooden frieze of the Anima Sola depicted above, shows nude figures in penitent supplication surrounded by flames. The prominent figure in the center is female. In most Hispanic examples of Anima Sola, the main figure is female. A similar female figure from this scene of Purgatory is used often as a trope on votive candles and on prayer cards, as a home or portable devotion. She has implications of Eve as the first person to sin with the misogynistic idea that women are more prone to sin since Eve was so easily persuaded by the serpent and she was the cause of Original Sin from which all of mankind must suffer. The central female figure in this interpretation is the only implied full body figure in the frieze, owing to the appearance of her leg breaking through the flames near the bottom of the piece. The pose of this leg gives an awkward twist to the figure, which already possesses some imaginative anatomy.
On each side of the central woman, there are the head and shoulders of four other figures, two on each side. These figures alternate in gender, beginning on the left with a male and ending on the far right with a woman. The woman on the far right is compressed into an improbable position to accommodate her head so that it fits onto the piece of wood from which it is carved. It is not clear if this graceless and unnatural pose is a consequence of bad compositional planning or an attempt at evoking a pose of contemplative contrition. All the figures flanking the central female are writhing in the flames of penance. None are interacting with one another either physically or psychologically. Each are consumed with their own plight in keeping to the concept of the Lonely Soul. Below the half figures is a second row consisting only of heads. These heads are not depicted pleading for forgiveness, but all seem to be looking downward or inward, absorbed in their own predicament. Their presence looks perfunctory. They come across as necessary only to project the notion that Purgatory contains many souls. All these figurative elements are surrounded by the flames of expurgation. It is the flames that bring movement to the piece with their sinuous lines. There is a solidity to the fire that observed flames do not have. There is no lightness, or ephemerality that is the essence of fire. This may not be the limitations of the artist. Flames and fire are notoriously challenging to depict in any static art medium with any degree of naturalism. Fire is a perpetually moving, transparent, gaseous, and amorphous material. These qualities, even in three dimensions do not translate well into the traditional media of drawing, painting or sculpture. What artists usually do is to depict the human concept of what we believe fire looks like. Writhing and pointed lines become a symbol of the element and the viewer accepts it. The flames depicted here despite their solidity do add to the visual understanding of Purgatorial fire. This relief presents a Purgatory that is charming, sanitized and without heat. It manipulates our emotions without demanding our participation. We feel moved but not guilty. It has all the qualities of good folk art; quirky execution with recognizable and relatable subject.
Variations on this fiery theme of Purgatory are common in Catholic churches. In the mid-19th century church of Most Holy Redeemer, built for the Manhattan, New York, Lower East Side German Catholic community, there is a scene of Purgatory where the central figure is male – a nod to Adam as the first sinner as he had the free will to say no to Eve’s suggestion of eating the fruit; and he had the ability to stop Eve from eating it, which he did not exercise. The secondary figures are of both genders as in the Anima Sola carving. In the Most Holy Redeemer Church version, there are some striking differences beside the central figure being male. The figures are standing in a more naturalistic space. The flames are gilded, instead of red. Gold emphasizes the process of purification rather than the red flames of consumption. It is the symbol of the light of heaven reflected in the cleansing fire of absolution. The greatest difference of this version is the presence of angels floating above the figures holding a chalice which contains the Eucharistic body of Christ. The figures below the angels are all in devotional poses facing the chalice. This is the symbol of Christ as the Redeemer and Savior. He is the one who will provide forgiveness and entrance to Holy Eternity. Above this scene of Purgatory, the words “Have pity on me … at least you my friends” is inscribed. This is a quote from Job (19:21), from when his friends see that Job has been laid low by God, all turn against him for fear that Job’s misery will be contagious. It is used here as a reminder for those passing the shrine to remember the souls suffering in Purgatory and pray for their redemption. They should not abandon them as Job’s friends did to him.
However classic or clichéd these distilled presentations of Purgatory are, they are not the original depiction nor the only concept of it as a place. The earliest depiction that has come down to us of Purgatory, is a fresco dated 1346 in the Convent of San Francisco, in Todi, Umbria, Italy, painted by Jacopo di Mino del Pelliccoiaio (born 1315/1319 – died before 1396).* It is a depiction of a vision given to St. Patrick, who experiencing a reluctance of the Irish people to convert to Catholicism, prayed to God for guidance. St. Patrick was given a vision where he saw a pit (some say cave) in the ground. God called this pit/cave Purgatory. Inside the cave St. Patrick was shown the torments of Hell for sinners and the joys waiting for the faithful in Heaven. He was instructed to show this place to the people he was trying to convert, and they would believe his message.
St. Patrick’s miracle was expanded upon in 1147, by an unnamed monk at the monastery of Saltrey near Cambridge, England. He wrote about Owain, an Irish Knight, and the experiences Owain had during a visit to St. Patrick’s cave. Forty years before the monk penned the tale, Owain was allowed to enter the cave, located on remote Station Island in Lake Derg in the north of Ireland. Inside, he found himself surrounded by demons and cast into fire. He was saved by calling on the name of Christ. After further torments, he was led across a narrow bridge that spanned over Hell and entered an Earthly Paradise where souls awaited their entry into Heaven. Returning to the world, Owain told others of his ordeal and salvation. After the monk wrote down Owain’s story, St. Patrick’s Purgatory became a widespread legend around Europe, causing the cave, and the remote island it was located on to become a popular place of pilgrimage.
The fresco of Purgatory in the Convent of San Francisco merges both St. Patrick’s mystic revelation and the elements of Owain’s spiritual ordeal. It depicts St. Patrick’s Purgatory as a rocky hill, with a well-like opening at its crest. The interior of the hill is shown by the device of window like openings in the side of the hill revealing the appropriate torments of purgation the souls must endure for each of the 7 Deadly Sins (avarice, envy, sloth, pride, anger, lust, gluttony). St. Patrick is perched on the top of the hill, directing the souls to the entrance of Purgatory. After the souls have been purged of their particular sins, they are pictured leaving the hill through an exit at the bottom, where they are greeted by Mary and crowned by her with a wreath of white flowers as a symbol of their new purity. They then pass to St. Peter (with the key to Heaven dangling from his wrist), who allows them entrance to the Heavenly Jerusalem of Paradise. Between Mary and St. Peter is St. Philip Benizi in his monks’ habit, holding the white lilies from which Mary is fashioning the chaplets. St. Philip Benzi was one of the founding members of the Order of the Servites (dedicated to the Sorrows of Mary), the monastic order that founded the monastery and commissioned the fresco before it was converted to the Convent of San Francisco. His presence in the spiritual happenings of the painting honors his position as founder of the monastery and confirms his glorification as a saint. His place at the side of Mary commemorates his life’s devotion to her.
The Convent of San Francisco’s depiction of Purgatory, is similar to the Christian idea of Hell with demons providing the methods of penance. What makes it the place of purging sins rather than a place of the eternal suffering of sins, is that the souls are eventually released from their suffering after a suitable period of penance, into the waiting arms of Mary and guided to their reward in Heaven.
No discussion of Purgatory can be complete without mentioning Dante’s famous poetic version. Dante had a different take on the idea of Purgatory as a rocky slope. He enlarged the hill into a mountain surrounded by a vast sea. He moved the entrance to the base of the mountain and envisioned the places of penance as terraces on the craggy face of it. Like the caves in the rocky hill of the fresco at the Convent of San Francisco, each of Dante’s terraces is dedicated to one of the Seven Deadly Sins beginning with Pride and ending with Lust. Also like the fresco, each sin has an appropriate punishment: Pride, carrying heavy stones; Envy, sealed eyes; Wrath, smoke; Sloth, running; Avarice, prostration; Gluttony, starvation; Lust, fire. Each sin has an appropriate prayer that will assist in the shortening of the tormented souls time of punishment and a corresponding beatitude which eases the torment. An angel is stationed at each terrace to keep track of each soul’s progress, erasing the sins from them when the penitent has atoned for them, and allowing them to move on to whatever next level awaits their progress. At the pinnacle is the Earthly Paradise or Eden, where the purged souls finally ascend into Heaven.
Dante’s Purgatory, unlike the traditional idea of a place of fire where your misdeeds are burned away, has a somewhat more humanitarian discipline. It is structured as an ascent from bad to best and it continually offers understanding and forgiveness as its traits. The souls in Dante’s version are not lonely as depicted in the Anima Sola. They are not left to atone by themselves. There are comrades who move through the penitential landscape as a group; angels to watch over, mark the soul’s time and remove the sin when the allotted time has been completed, allegorical artworks carved onto the mountainside to contemplate while completing their punishments to aid in understanding their errors to become truly contrite, prayers for assistance that Dante provides for the reader to offer the souls to shorten their atonement, and beatitudes that the souls chant for succor as they journey up the mountain. All of this activity is in addition to their main designated punishment. Everything in Dante’s purgatorial universe is designed with compassion to assist the transgressor to their place back into God’s grace. In Dante’s vision, God wants us to live eternally with Him in Heaven. He will do everything (within the confines of free will) to make that happen.
Still, there are those who believe that Purgatory is a Catholic vanity that has no grounding in scripture. The Protestants believe that salvation is achieved by faith alone so there is no need for a holding place to work out lingering indiscretions. To prove that it exists, one priest created the Museum of the Souls of Purgatory which collects artifacts that purport to provide evidence for the existence of the true souls waiting in Purgatory. In 1897, after a fire in the church of the Sacred Heart of the Suffrage in Rome, Father Victor Jouet while surveying the damage noticed an image of a human face delineated by soot, on the wall behind the altar of one of the chapels. Father Jouet believed that this image impressed on the wall, was created by a deceased parishioner conscripted to Purgatory who was trying to reach out to the faithful to remind them to pray for his soul. Father Jouet decided to search out other signs and proofs of the true existence of Purgatory. The meager collection of objects he was able to assemble through his travels within Europe took 14 years to collect. These objects can now be seen in the rebuilt church of The Sacred Heart of the Suffrage. They comprise one small case of ten objects where the hand or fingers of each deceased soul had touched a live object and left an imprint resembling a scorch mark caused by the touch of their hand or fingers. These marks, the Father believed, were the true indication of the existence of Purgatory, and that the souls there needed the help of the living to assist their redemption.
Taking their cues from the Bible, the Catholic Church has a long association with interpreting miraculous supernatural events as signs from God. Their belief in Christ as a risen deity and in their belief of the eternality of the human soul, are encouragements, if not requirements, to communication with the dead. With the ingrained understanding that the souls in Purgatory require prayerful help from the living to speed their penance, it seems logical to Catholics that the dead trapped in Purgatory would reach out for assistance from the living if this relief was not forthcoming. The idea that the dead confined to Purgatory would be active in their supplication of the living for prayer is not a usual part of the folk belief of the Anima Solis. The concept of the Lonely Soul passively hoping for the compassion, with attached messages reminding the living to not forget the dead sufferers, is how most artist’s depictions imagine how Purgatory works. Jouet not only provides seeming proof of Purgatory, he provides evidence that it may be populated with proactive souls.
When I was instructed into the ways of the Catholic Church, the discussion of Purgatory was minimal. There was a mention of prayers for the dead in every mass, but direct attention to the souls in Purgatory were confined to All Souls Day. The congregation of my parish church were originally Italian immigrants from Naples, Italy. Their main spiritual concern as part of their larger Catholic faith, was a cultic worship of Mary of Jerusalem, their particular version of the Virgin Mary. In the church I attended, there was no visual depiction of Purgatory. Families had their private devotions to their dead. My family lit candles weekly for deceased members and remembered them often by visiting graves or having masses said in their honor. In some vague and grey place in our minds, Purgatory was a place we had heard of, but it was not a living presence in our faith. Despite the exhortations of the ecclesiastic brethren, we still believed that Purgatory was a place for purification, not an abstract state for the soul to pass through. Like Hell, it was uncomfortable to imagine it. It meant that the people we loved may not be good enough to live with God. It meant we ourselves were probably somehow wanting in our devotions. It was more comforting to assume that all who died went to heaven. What we wanted was not to dwell on death, but to believe in the Resurrection. We wanted to believe in miracles that affirmed life. We wanted to believe in life, in a life everlasting.
*This fresco was discovered in 1974 during renovations on the old convent. When good sisters took over the monastery from the Servite monks, they painted white over the fresco since it did not conform to their simple tastes. Restoration was completed in 1985.
Arthur Bruso © 2021
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