This small figure conveys the sense of urgency which Paul expresses in his description of a purifying fire and a narrow escape from damnation—it represents a soul pining for release from Purgatory, hands clasped to its chest in a pleading attitude.
Wooden statuettes of a single soul in Purgatory are a typical product of Puerto Rican folk carvers or santeros, whose creations are known locally as santos de palo. Although examples of this iconographical variant from around the 1700s can also be found in the wider Spanish Caribbean, the Puerto Rican case is unique in that the tradition of depicting the ánima sola survived well into the twentieth century.
Objects of this type have often been characterized as folk art, in contrast with those made by professionally-trained artists, which were usually shaped to a greater extent by the weight of conventions and the scrutiny of religious authorities. Owing to the lack of contemporary documentation or artistic literature about them, it is difficult to establish the exact meaning which these carvings held for their original makers and owners.
Traditional santos de palo were made for a domestic context, in which the depiction of a single soul may easily encourage its identification with a departed parent, spouse, child, close relative, or friend. According to some studies in folk religiosity, however, the ánima sola was an invitation to imagine the most forsaken soul of Purgatory, that of an individual whom no one remembers, who is therefore most in need of the viewer’s prayers. Both possibilities attest to the role played by questions of identity in regard to the emotional appeal of images of this kind. In addition, ánimas solas subvert the usual order in that they represent someone to pray for, rather than gain favours from, unlike other intercessor saints and heavenly benefactors with which it may have shared a home shrine.
All in all, representations of the ánima sola evidence the variety and vitality of artistic responses to the idea of Purgatory generated within the context of a global religion.
Netto, Elizabeth, Calil Zarur and Charles Muir Lovell (eds). 2001. Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico) 2001, pp. 232–6, 325
Taylor, René, et al. 1993. Colección de arte latinoamericano/LatinAmerican Art Collection (Ponce: Museo de Arte de Ponce)
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.