The purifying fire discussed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 3, understood as an allusion to Purgatory, was often interpreted in connection with a passage in the Old Testament Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 12:38–45) in which prayers and offerings are made for the benefit of those who died having committed idolatry. In light of the latter passage, it was thought possible to reduce the time the souls of the departed spent in Purgatory by carrying out certain actions, which gave rise to a variety of practices and visual representations.
In Galicia, in the north-western corner of Spain, a particular type of economy between the living and the dead was focused on small wayside shrines dedicated to the souls in Purgatory, such as this one (known as petos de ánimas). Besides reminding passers-by to offer their prayers and votive candles, each peto was also a collection box in which alms for the poor could be collected on behalf of the souls in Purgatory, which also helped their ascent into Heaven. In return, souls liberated from Purgatory would afterwards vouch in Heaven for the good deeds of their benefactors on earth.
This reciprocal aspect of the beliefs surrounding Purgatory is reminiscent of the Roman cult of the di lares, just as, coincidentally or not, the peto de ánimas is similar in appearance to the lararium found in Roman households. A specific sub-type, the lares viales, to which wayside shrines were dedicated, were themselves a Roman translatio, or adaptation, of beliefs held by the local Celtic peoples. Thus, petos de ánimas may be regarded as a fascinating window into a multi-layered past made out of permeable categories, in which each successive belief system finds ways to cohere with its predecessor.
From the earliest medieval examples, depictions of Purgatory often show men and women belonging to different social groups to signify the levelling aspect of death. In its proper context, the small cathedral town of Tui, this shrine is a powerful and somewhat subversive reminder that nobody is free from sin, as the soul in the middle prominently sports a bishop’s mitre.
Abad, Rosa Brañas. 2007. ‘Entre mitos, ritos y santuarios: los dioses galaico-lusitanos’, in Los pueblos de la Galicia céltica, ed. by F. J. González (Madrid: Akal), pp. 77–443
Sofroniew, Alexandra. 2016. Household Gods: Private Devotion in Ancient Greece and Rome (Los Angeles: Getty Publications)
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. 11For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.