Shrine of the Souls in Purgatory by Unknown Spanish artist

Unknown Spanish artist

Shrine of the Souls in Purgatory, c.1700s, Granite and wrought iron, Aedicule: 73 x 52 cm; Grille: 36 x 36 cm, Tui [Pontevedra], Spain , Photo by Pablo Perez d'Ors

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A Multi-Layered Realm

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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.

 

References

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)


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