Altars for the Holy Souls in Purgatory

Many will of course be at least casually aware of the fact that traditionally side altars are 'thematic.' For example, an altar to Our Lady, another to St. Joseph and so on. However, lost in the sanitized piety of the later nineteenth century onward however, is one type of altar that most have likely never seen or even been aware exists: altars dedicated to the holy souls in purgatory. 

Purgatory is one of those elements that has been significantly lost in modern Catholic life since the Second Vatican Council. When, for example, was the last time you heard purgatory discussed, preached upon, etc. in your typical Catholic parish? Some could well be forgiven for thinking that the whole matter of purgatory was 'abandoned' following the Second Vatican Council (for, practically speaking, for all intents and purposes, that is what has effectively happened, no doubt in a misguided notion of minimizing denominational differences),

November, being the month of the Holy Souls is a good opportunity to remind Catholics of this reality, and one of the more permanent reminders of this are permanent altars dedicated to the Holy Souls.  These particular examples I am sharing with you today all come from Italy and range in date from the 1600's through the early 1900's.  Some of them include memento mori, while others simply include purgatorial imagery.  

We'll begin our considerations with a Sicilian altar dated to the second half of the eighteenth century. This particular altar includes a central medallion showing one of the suffering souls in purgatory and, above, we find a beautiful painting depicting the Blessed Virgin interceding on behalf of the souls in purgatory. 

One of the more evocative altars is one which includes beautiful inlaid marbles showing a male and female figure surrounded by inlaid marbles representing the purifying fires of purgatory. It is dated from 1800-1824. Regrettably I have no further images of this particular altar. 

Next we have an altar piece dated to 1740-60. The altar itself as well as the reredos include various memento mori, namely skulls and cross-bones, as well as an image of a man pondering the same within his hands. Beneath the main altar piece painting itself, which shows man, possibly St. Joseph, on his death bed, we see a painted scene of the souls of purgatory. 

Our next altar piece is dated to 1712-1714 and has similar themes to the previous example. 

From 1919 we find this beautiful black marbled altar piece with a very striking painting whose bright purgatorial flames really jump out at the viewer. 

If we look back more than 200 years earlier to the year 1686, we see a continuity in this regard:

Our next example, which is dated to 1789 and situated within the Venetian region, includes a main sculptural image that, rather uniquely, uses a brownish red marble to signify the fires of purgatory, from which the holy souls, shown in white marble, are seen to peer out from within.

We will conclude our considerations of these altars with this one dated to 1729. The central medallion of the altar includes a scene of the holy souls, as do components of the gradine -- the flames in this instance being represented by gilt decoration. 

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.