More Altarpieces for the Suffering Souls of Purgatory

As many will be aware, for most of the Church's life churches traditionally had various altars which were dedicated to particular 'themes.' Most commonly this was expressed in the form of an altar dedicated to a particular saint, one usually of general importance to the Catholic populace (such as an altar of Our Lady or St. Joseph) or in other instances of particular importance to the local Catholic community -- patronal saints and so on. However, it was also not uncommon to also find altars dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. These altars and their altarpieces typically saw expressions like the use of black and white marbles (or colours) and the use of memento mori within their designs.

A secularized view of these things -- one informed by popular culture's co-opting some of these symbols -- tends to view it as macabre or even "satanic." but a Catholic view informed by Catholic culture understands them for what they are: not celebrations of death and gore, but reminders of our own mortality -- that we are dust and unto dust we shall return; reminders too that one day we too shall stand before the Judgement Seat of God and reminders finally to pray for the Holy Souls in purgatory.  It all makes perfect sense within a Christian worldview to have these reminders, these mementos, placed before us, and in a time where we've lost much of our sense of purgatory and the Four Last Things and seem to foolishly avoid any considerations of the undeniable reality of our own mortality, they seem to be particularly apropos for our time.

In view of that, and hopefully to inspire you, today on this All Souls Day I'd like to present our readers with a few more examples of altars dedicated to the suffering souls in purgatory. (For more examples, see our previous article on this subject from All Souls Day, 2022.)   I won't go into specific detail on each and every other of them; suffice it to say that what you will see are various memento mori symbols, most especially skulls, bones and skeletons -- reminders of our mortality -- and also images of the suffering souls of purgatory. Frequently accompanying these altars are also altarpieces showing Mary and the saints interceding for the souls in purgatory. 

Liguria, 1638-1643

Tuscany, 18th century

Milan, 18th century

Rimini, 1746

Bergamo, 18th century

Detail, Bergamo, 18th century

Udine, 1754

From Sicily, circa 1650-1674; it is the retable/reredos that you wish to focus on here. We will provide some details. 

Details from the reredos/retable which allegorically depict various states of life, both secular and ecclesiastical:

An altar from Trent, dated to the 1600's:

This particular Tridentine altar includes a rather unique image of a skeleton, rather casually reclining, with a cherub from which emanates what we might assume represent the relief provided by the prayers, offerings and Masses held for them. 

From Bergamo, dated to the second half of the 1600's.

The painting from this altarpiece, dated to 1690-1710, depicts the Holy Trinity with the Virgin Mary and St. Francis of Assisi interceding for the souls of purgatory who are seen below.. 

The altarpiece also includes four panels depicting the suffering souls in purgatory:

Another now also from Bergamo, dated to circa 1710-1750 which includes a skeleton shown resting on symbols of earthly and ecclesiastical power (that they are so depicted, as though they were mere trinkets, carries with it the message of the passing, impermanent nature of worldly power and honours and that death is the great equalizer):

Dated to the 19th century, this same altar also includes a painting of Mary interceding for the souls in purgatory:

From nineteenth century Venice, here is yet another altar dated to approximately 1800-1824:

Yet another from eighteenth century Bergamo which is once again accompanied by a painting illustrating the Virgin interceding on behalf of the souls in purgatory:

One sees again the depiction of death, surrounded by the vanities of the world and temporal symbols of power. The message of course is clear; these things are not eternal; they are passing. 

The suffering souls also make an appearance.

I hope these altars might, on this All Souls Day 2023, inspire you to take up the practice of praying for the dead. Given our cultural avoidance of this subject of our own mortality, and given the fact that one rarely hears about purgatory or the holy, suffering souls, it seems to me that altars or works such as these would be a very welcome addition in Catholic parishes today.

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