A Unique Variation of the Missae Defunctorum: Skulls and Purgatorial Imagery

s a final consideration around All Souls Day and the symbolic details associated with the requiem, let us turn our attention to the liturgical book arts.

Shown here is a Missae Defunctorum (or in other words, a missal published specifically for use at requiem Masses, including the ordinary of the Mass and only those propers needed for these particular liturgical occasions) published in Vienna in 1851. Now I have seen many requiem missals in my time, and most of them look like your typical altar missal but with black leather, black tabs and ribbons and so on, but this particular edition is rather unique insofar as it not only does that, but they have additionally added art and iconography in a vein similar to the 17th and 18th century black vestments shown recently.

Let us start with the outer binding itself:

Skull and crossbones feature prominently on the front cover of this missal, gilt in silver by the look of it. On the back cover is an image of a decrepit grave shaded by a tree -- an image that is certainly 19th century in origin; by comparison the skull and crossbones are likely a century or two older in design.

A curious feature of this latter design is that if you look closely at the gravestone, they have vaguely suggested the idea of the carved name on the stone by use of squiggly lines. However, what they have explicitly put on the gravestone marker is the year "1858." This wouldn't be as curious if the publication date of the text block of this missal was 1858 instead of 1851. The likely explanation for this is that this is the mark of the artist who produced this particular design, noting the year in which they produced it -- like an artist signing or dating their work. If that still seems strange for a book published in 1851, it must be remembered that there was a time when it would be more common to acquire the unbound text block of a book and have it bound by a bookbinder seperately at a later date.

The title page of the missal also includes a purgatorial scene with various saints being cleansed by purgatorial fires; cherubs lifting out some of them out of those same fires to presumably take them to their heavenly bliss, their purification now effected.

This is all rather on point of course for a missal for Masses for the Dead of course, since the oft forgotten primary intention of such liturgies is not the solace of the family, or as a memorial of the deceased, but rather to offer the Mass for the repose the soul of the dead.

As a final note, I have long wondered if this particular binding was a customized "one off" and I have operated on that assumption. That is, until I came across this. Here we have another version of the same gilt decoration on what would appear to be an earlier binding still.

This leads me to think that this particular binding likely has its origins in the 18th century. This would certainly align it well to the vestments we have seen from this same era which frequently employed this skull and crossbones imagery.