The several naked men and women in this engraving are depicted as immersed in a fire that ‘will test what sort of work each one has done’, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 3:13.
The lapping flames become confused with the women’s long locks of hair, creating the impression of an indeterminate multitude. Still, each figure has distinctive facial features, indicating that it corresponds to a different individual’s soul. Rather than suffering from the flames, the souls seem to pine for Heaven, represented in the print by the monogram IHS (‘Jesus, Saviour of Mankind’) surrounded by a burst of rays. Two winged children on either side point at the monogram, while simultaneously extending a hand to hoist a soul out of Purgatory and up into Jesus’s presence in Heaven. The souls are literally saved ‘through fire’ (1 Corinthians 3:15).
Flemish engraver Cornelis Galle (1576–1650) envisioned this print after a detail from an altarpiece painted by Peter Paul Rubens between 1630 and 1633, which depicts St Teresa interceding for the souls in Purgatory. The altarpiece, which was originally destined for the church of the Discalced Carmelites in Antwerp and is now in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (inv. no. 299), was designed to act as a powerful reminder of the ability of certain saints to channel the prayers of the devout and help the ascent of souls from Purgatory into Heaven.
Galle adapted the image by cropping out the figures of Christ and St Teresa and focusing only on the lower section with the souls in Purgatory. On the bottom he added a Latin inscription taken from Job 19:21, which in this context reads as if it were addressed to the viewer by a soul in Purgatory: Miseremini mei, miseremini mei, saltem vos amici mei, ‘Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, at least you, my friends’. This was an image designed to elicit compassion, prayer, and good deeds from those who saw it.
Voorhelm Schneevoogt, C. G. 1873. Catalogue des estampes gravées d'après P. P. Rubens (Haarlem: Les héritiers Loosjes)
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.