A preoccupation with death, divine judgement, and the afterlife has been a characteristic feature of Christianity throughout its history, from its very beginnings. Paul likens death to a fire that comes to test the quality of a building, here a simile for the deeds of the believer. If any of it is found lacking, the builder ‘will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved’ (1 Corinthians 3:15). But (the passage goes on) he will be saved ‘only as through fire’. This fiery imagery opened up a number of enticing theological, as well as visual, possibilities.
Within the Catholic Church, the idea that lesser sins may be purged by fire after death has traditionally been interpreted as support for the doctrine of Purgatory. Though criticized by Protestant Reformers as a superstition with origins outside of Scripture and Christianity, Purgatory enjoyed considerable purchase in Catholic countries, probably owing to its psychological appeal as a plausible intermediate option in the face of Christian eschatology: few people would seem to be so utterly faultless as to go straight into Heaven, or evil enough to deserve eternal damnation in Hell. For that same reason, believers may also have regarded Purgatory as a welcome second chance. It is therefore not surprising that artists and artisans explored this halfway realm in a plethora of different ways across centuries and continents; so much so that images of Purgatory in Western art are arguably as numerous and conspicuous as those of both Heaven and Hell.
A detail of a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, popularized through prints by Cornelis Galle, depicts Purgatory’s most salient feature: its temporary character, which is demonstrated by a human figure, representing one soul in Purgatory, being hauled up into Heaven by an angel. Traditionally, Catholicism also presented this realm in the afterlife as allowing some form of interaction with the living. Through prayers for the souls in Purgatory, which were often addressed to specific saintly intercessors, the devout could effectively help the souls of the dead reach their final resting place in Heaven. By presenting the viewer with this hopeful possibility, the print by Galle helps cement a powerful bond with the dead—the same psychological bond which turned images of Purgatory into desirable commodities.
Neither Scripture nor the teachings of the Catholic Church provided artists with a great wealth of detail as to the state of souls in Purgatory. But the lack of greater definition left open a fertile field for the imagination of artists to thrive, expanding the meaning of Purgatory in different directions.
Rubens and Galle’s Purgatory emphasizes communality, inviting the viewer to envision a multitude of souls scattered in a seemingly vast space. This mass of souls may be reminiscent of another similar thronging multitude in the Christian imaginary—the Communion of Saints.
By contrast, a small Galician shrine made of stone shows only three souls crammed into a tiny aedicule. Rather than its negligible flames, this vision of Purgatory is particularly apt at conveying a sense of the souls’ claustrophobic confinement, which is enhanced by the decorative grille set in front of them.
Finally, across the Atlantic, in Puerto Rico, traditional wood carvers emphasized a completely different aspect by depicting a single soul, suggesting not only individuality but also a sense of isolation that adds an original, psychological, dimension to the soul’s penance.
In Puerto Rico, small carvings of a single lonely soul were kept in the home on a dedicated wooden shelf, often in the company of other statuettes of saints, and would be the focus of their owners’ prayers and candle offerings. The same functionality is apparent in the Galician shrine, in front of which are fixed two wrought iron prongs for sticking and lighting thick (and formerly expensive) wax tapers of the kind normally found in a funerary context. However, unlike the domestic setting of its Puerto Rican counterpart, the Galician example is placed outdoors, at a crossroads.
Details such as these could have an unforeseen effect in the ways in which an image (and therefore Purgatory, in our case) was thought of and interacted with.
In its domestic context, Puerto Rican carvings of a single soul seem to invite a sense of ownership as well as identification with an individual—perhaps a close relative who is sorely missed. Nevertheless, Catholic orthodoxy prefers that prayers should be directed at the souls in Purgatory as a group, since it is generally thought impossible to know the fate of individuals (including the viewer) after death. And death is a crossroads for all souls, not just some.
Cuchet, Guillaume (ed.). 2012. Le Purgatoire: Fortune historique et historiographique d’un dogme (Paris: Éditions de l‘École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)
‘The Final Purification, or Purgatory’. 1993. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana) http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2N.HTM
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.