Wednesday, November 15, 2017

November, Month of Prayer for the Souls in Purgatory

Souls in Purgatory
German, 19th Century
Private Collection
For Catholics, the month of November has traditionally been a month of prayer for the souls of the deceased, often known as the Holy Souls in Purgatory.  It begins with the feast of All Souls, which is celebrated in the Catholic liturgical calendar on November 2.  This immediately follows the November 1 feast of All Saints, reminding us that the Church is composed of three distinct groups:  those currently living on earth, the saints in heaven and the souls undergoing purification in Purgatory. 

In this month the Church remembers and prays for all the deceased who have received their initial (or particular) judgment at death and who were found to have lived lives of imperfection, not bad enough to warrant the eternal damnation of Hell, but not perfect enough as yet to enter Heaven.  They still have some way to go on their journey to the perfect holiness of Heaven.  These are, I believe, the conditions that most of humanity faces at death.  We bear with us some of the residual taint for our sins, small and great, that have already been pardoned, somewhat like fine sand sticks to wet skin and needs to be brushed or washed off after we leave the beach. 
Two Souls in Purgatory
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Zwolle), c. 1470
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 G 28, fol. 115r




The state of being (not a place, per se) where this cleansing happens is known as Purgatory.  There, the souls, divested of their earthly form, experience some kind of purgation.  This has traditionally been regarded as a cleansing fire that purifies in the manner of the purification of metal, which is smelted to remove impurities that would weaken it. 1

While it is a “place” of purgation, Purgatory is not, however, a place of tortures and despair, like Hell.  Every soul confined there knows that it is bound for Heaven once purified.  The souls in Purgatory, although suffering, remain filled with hope and even joy, accepting their state as necessary for their salvation and offering prayers.  As part of the Communion of Saints they can be assisted by the prayers of the living and by the intercession of those in Heaven. 2

This forms the background for the ways in which the Souls in Purgatory are depicted by artists.  Artists have been very careful not to confuse their depictions of Purgatory with their depictions of Hell.  Even when showing the purgative fires, the attitude of the souls bears witness to the hope and joy with which they accept their state, or plead for the prayers of the living to assist them.  Angels bring them comfort and encouragement in some pictures and, very frequently, are shown in the act of releasing souls whose purgation is completed. 

You will undoubtedly notice that in almost all of the pictures that include them, the souls are shown as naked.  This is a reminder that 1) as we came into the world with no covering but our skin, so will we depart it and 2) worldly rank and position, though occasionally depicted by headgear, are totally irrelevant to the fate of our souls.  The rich cannot buy themselves into heaven with their finery and the poverty of the poor cannot bar them from eternal happiness.

Masters of the Dark Eyes, Angels Releasing Souls from Purgatory
From a Book of Hours
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 G , fol. 171r

These pictures most frequently appeared in the Books of Hours, the principal prayer book for the laity.  Books of Hours offered the laity the opportunity to pray throughout the day in the same way that the Divine Office provided for priests and monks.  Many Books of Hours included special Hours for the Dead.  These Hours for the Dead were a series of special prayers to assist the dead in their trials in Purgatory.  The earliest pictures of Purgatory come from them and the themes presented in some of the earliest images continued to hold the imagination of artists right through time into the nineteenth century.  They uniformly urge the living to pray for the dead to assist them to attain heaven.

The Sufferings of the Souls in Purgatory

They manner in which souls expiate the leftover effects of their sins is not defined.  As stated above, there is in both Scripture and tradition some evidence for some kind of fire.  However, it remains a mystery and will remain so for us, until the day we find ourselves there.  So artists and poets have found different answers to the question. 

Soul Caught in Ice
From the Pelerinage de l'ame by Guillaume de Digulleville
Franch (Rennes), c. 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 114v

Soul Chained to a Chest
From Pelerinage de l'ame by Guillaume de Digulleville
Franch (Rennes), c. 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 115


Pair of Souls in the Fire of Purgatory
French, Early 16th Century
Private Collection

Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino, Soul in the Fire of Purgatory
Italian, c. 1620-1630
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

A Word About Dante's Purgatory

As part of his trilogy poem The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri included Purgatory.  It forms the content of the second book, Purgatorio.  His view of the sufferings of the souls in Purgatory is quite different.  

In his vision Purgatory is not a lake or river of fire, it is a mountain, ringed with seven ridges. As one ascends the mountain and passes through each ridge the Seven Deadly Sins are purged away by penalties appropriate to the sin of that ridge. Each ridge also includes several examples of the corresponding Seven Virtues. 

• At the bottom of the mountain the souls of the recently dead who are saved but not purged approach the angelic gatekeeper to begin their upward journey. 

• On the first ridge, we see the proud bowed beneath large rocks that keep them in a position which enables them to see sculptured reliefs illustrating the virtue of humility on the ground under their feet. 

• On the second ridge, the envious sit with their eyes sewn shut, since it was through their eyes that they looked enviously on their fellow humans. Here the virtue is that of generosity. 

• On the third, the wrathful wander about through smoke, representing the blindness that came upon them through their anger. The opposing virtue is meekness.

• On the fourth, the slothful run with urgency. The opposite virtue here is zeal.

• On the fifth, the greedy and the spendthrifts lie motionless, unable to move or help themselves. The opposing virtue is charity.

• On the sixth, the gluttons stand before trees laden with fruit that they cannot reach. Temperance is the corresponding virtue.

• On the seventh, the lustful pass through fire, representing the effects of their sin on the psyche. Chastity is the virtue here. 

• At the top of the mountain, a man and woman who have passed through all the ridges have regained the original purity of Adam and Eve before the Fall and are now ready to advance into Paradise. 


The most famous, and perhaps one of the only, images of this idea is found in the background of a 1465 fresco by Domenico di Michelino, called "Dante Illuminating Florence With His Poem" it shows each of the three states that form the poem:  Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.  

Domenico di Michelino, Dante Illuminating Florence With His Poem
Italian, 1465
Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

In this picture Michelino has shown each of the levels of Mount Purgatory and the penance attached it it.  

Domenico di Michelino, Dante Illuminating Florence (detail of Purgatory)
Italian, 1465
Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
But, even on this mountain the souls pray as they perform their penances and are released from their sufferings by the prayers of others.  When this happens, according to Dante, the whole mountain expresses great joy and the released soul rises up from its current penance and hurries to the next level to take on the penance for the next sin that needs to have its residue taken away.  Everything is joyful.  When the soul finally reaches the summit of the hill, the earthly paradise, the native state of sinlessness of Adam and Eve before the fall, they bathe in the river Lethe, which brings forgetfulness and is the final cleansing before their ascent to Heaven.  After bathing, they remember the fact of their sins, but not the sense of failure and shame associated with them.  This done, they are ready to be with God forever.


The Souls Offering Prayers While in Purgatory

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that the souls spend their time praying.  They cannot pray for themselves, but it is thought that they may pray for those still living or they may pray to the Virgin Mary or the saints for their intercession or they may pray simply to glorify God.  Whatever their object can be, they are frequently seen in attitudes of prayer.  In fact, it is this prayerful attitude and the joy frequently expressed on their faces that can help determine if a scene of souls surrounded by flames refers to Purgatory or to Hell, for there is no joy or prayer in Hell.  

Master of the Modena Hours, Liberation of Souls from Purgatory and Reception in Heaven by God
From a Missal
Italian (Milan), c. 1390-1400
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS MMW 10 A16, fol. 224v

Master of Zweder van Columborg, Souls Praying in Purgatory
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1425
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 133 M 131, fol. 196v
Gethsemane Master sand Master Azor, Souls Praying
From a Dutch Book of Hours
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1430
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 131 G 3, fol. 172r

Follower of Master Azor, Souls in Purgatory
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1430-1450
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 135 J 50, fol. 240v


Souls in Purgatory
From a Book of Hours
Flemish, c. 1470-1490
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KV 131 G 5, fol. 144r

Master of the Dark Eyes, Souls in Purgatory
From a Prayer Book
Dutch, c. 1490-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB  135 E 19, fol. 28v

Master of the Dark Eyes, Purgatory
From a Book of Hours
Flemish, c. 1490-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F31, fol. 138r

Intercession for the Souls by the Living

The living are able to pray for the souls in Purgatory and are urged to do so.  One can pray from the Office of the Dead, which was part of the popular Books of Hours prayer books, and is the source of  many of the images depicted here).  The best form of prayer for the souls is to offer a Mass for that intention.

Praying for Souls in Purgatory
From Pelerinage de l'ame by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), c. 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 110v
The Divine Economy
From a Book of Hours
Flemish, c. 1480-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS 133d5, fol. 86v




























Jacques de Besancon, Purgatory
From Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), c. 1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 245, fol. 162
Giuseppe Cades, Blessed Francis Venimbeni
Celebrating Mass for the Souls in Purgatory
Italian, c. 1750-1799
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art





























Intercession for the Souls by the Virgin Mary and the Saints

Pictures depicting the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and of many different saints forms the largest group of pictures related to Purgatory.  This is not surprising.  For, if the prayers of individual, living persons can assist the souls, how much more powerful will be the intercession of those people who are already acknowledged to have lived holy lives and to be with God in heaven.  Therefore, in addition to offering their own prayers for the Holy Souls, Catholics have also resorted to asking the intercession of the saints for them.

Angels Petitioning God on Behalf of Souls
From Pelerinage de l'ame by Guilllaume de Digulleville
Franch (Rennes), c. 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 111v
Intercession by Mary Releases a Soul from Purgatory
German, c. 1450-1550
Macclesfield, Cheshire (UK), West Park Museum


Pedro Machuca, The Virgin Intercedes for the Souls in Purgatory
Spanish, 1517
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Saint Francis Interceding for Souls in Purgatory
Italian, 17th-18th Century
San Pietro in Lama, Santa Maria della Croce



























Frans Francken II, The Virgin and Saints Interceding for the Souls in Purgatory
Flemish, c. 1600-1642
Paris, Musee du Louvre, Department des Arts graphiques
Alonso Cano, The Virgin Interceding for Souls in Purgatory
Spanish, c. 1601-1667
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ludovico Carracci, The Virgin and Child
Freeing Souls in Purgatory
Italian, c. 1610
Vatican City, Pinacoteca


























Giovanni Battista Crespi, Saint Gregory the Great
Delivering the Soul of a Monk from Purgatory
Italian, 1617
Varese, Church of San Vittore
Rubens Workshop, Saint Teresa of Avila
Interceding for Souls in Purgatory
Flemish, c. 1630-1633
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art



























Philippe de Champaigne, The Virgin Mary and
Other Saints Interceding for the Souls in Purgatory
Flemish, c. 1650
Toulouse, Musee des Augustine
Luca Giordano, The Virgin and Child Listen to
the Prayers of the  Souls in Purgatory
Italian, c. 1650
Venice, Church of San Pietro di Castell









































Michael Christoph Grabenberger, An Abbot Saint with the Office of the Dead and Souls in Purgatory
German, c. 1682-1683
Garsten (AUT), Garsten Abbey Church of the Assumption

Pietro Antonio de' Pietris, The Virgin, Saint Joseph and
Saint Anthony of Padua Interceding for Souls in Purgatory
Italian, 1694
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Giovanni Odazzi, Saint Gregory the Great Interceding
for Souls in Purgatory
Italian, c. 1700
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art



























The Virgin Mary and Saints Interceding
for the Souls in Purgatory
Italian, 17th-18th Century
Tuscania, Church of Santa Maria della Rosa

Saint Francis Interceding with Our Lady
of the Immaculate Conception for Souls in Purgatory
Italian, 1722
Galatone, Chiesa Matrice



























Sebastiano Ricci, Saint Gregory the Great
Interceding for Souls in Purgatory
Italian, c. 1730
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie der Staatlinche Museen zu Berlin

Francesco Fontebasso after Sebastiano Ricci
Pope Gregory the Great and Saint Vitale
Interceding for the Souls in Purgatory
Italian, c. 1731
Washington, National Gallery of Art
This drawing shows how one artist's idea and composition 
can be adapted by another for a slightly different reading. 
Fontebasso adds San Vitale to the petition, presumably to 
please a different patron.
































Michel Francois Dandre-Bardon, Saint James and
Two Bishop Saints Interceding Before the
Virgin in Favor of the Souls in Purgatory
French, c. 1742-1745
Dijon, Musee Magnin
Charles Nicolas Cochin II, The Risen Christ Appearing
to Souls in Purgatory
French, 1782
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art




























Angelic Encouragement

In these pictures angels are depicted as offering encouragement to the souls in Purgatory.  They encourage them with actions and exhortations.

Angels Encourage Souls in Purgatory
from Tafel van den Kersten Ghelove
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1400-1415
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M691_fol 207r
Here angels assist the souls by sprinkling them with holy water and praying rosaries for them.

Around 1610 Rubens prepared a sketch of the souls in purgatory which provided the basis for many compositions, by his studio (see, for instance, the work by his studio of Saint Teresa of Avila Interceding with Christ for the Souls in Purgatory, above) and by others.

After Peter Paul Rubens, Purgatory with symbol of the Trinity
Flemish, c.1610-1650
London, British Museum
Here the angels direct the souls to the symbol of the Trinity.
Cornelis Galle I after Peter Paul Rubens, Purgatory with the Symbol of the Holy Name of Jesus
Flemish, c. 1610-1650
London, British Museum
Here a reversed engraving of the same group of souls are directed to the symbol for the Holy Name of Jesus.

Cornelis Galle I after Peter Paul Rubens, Purgatory with
the Symbol for the Holy Name of Jesus
Flemish, c. 1610-1650
London, British Museum
Here Galle has taken the same group of souls but added
many more, plus more angels, clouds, etc.
Schelte Adamszoon Bolswert after Peter Paul Rubens,
Soul in Purgatory Praying for Mercy
Dutch, c. 1630-1678
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
This print maker has isolated the prominent female
figure from Rubens composition and modified it
slightly, personalizing it in a new way.































Charles Le Brun, Two Angels Visiting the Souls in Purgatory
French, c. 1650
Paris, Musee du Louvre, Cabinet des dessins
Even Charles LeBrun shows references to the Rubens composition, in spite of swinging the design to the side and 
mirroring it with variations.

Angelic Rescues

This was a particularly popular image for a very long time.  In these pictures we see the effect of the prayers of the living and the intercession of the saints, as souls are freed from Purgatory by angels.

Jean le Noir and Workshop, Angels Rescuing Souls from Purgatory
From the Breviary of Charles VFrench (Paris), c.1364-1370
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1052, fol. 556v

Angel Freeing a Soul from Purgatory
German woodcut, 15th Century
Cleveland, Museum of Art


























Angels Releasing Souls from Purgatory
German, c. 1438-1453
Nuremberg, Church of Saint Sebald

Workshop of Stefan Lochner, Souls in Purgatory About to Be Freed by Angels
From a Prayer BookGerman, c. 1444
Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Jean Colombe, Angels Freeing Souls from Purgatory
From the Hours of Anne of FranceFrench (Bourges), 1473
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M677, fol. 329r
Jean Colombe, Angels Freeing Souls from Purgatory
From the Hours of Anne of FranceFrench (Bourges), 1473
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M677, fol. 250v

These two pictures from the Hours of Anne of France appear to show the distinction between Purgatory and Hell.  Purgatory, in these images is the tower of fire from which angels are taking souls away.  Hell, on the other hand, is the area outside the towers, where demons inflict severe punishments on souls.  It is a dark and cold place, more in line with the thought of Dante, in his Inferno, than with the typical "fire and brimstone".




Masters of Hugo Janszoon van Woerden
Angels Bring Redeemed Souls to Christ
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Leyden), c. 1480-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheque
MS KB 132 G 37, fol. 45v
Jean Colombe, Resurrection of the Dead and
Liberation of the Souls in Purgatory
From the Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry
French, c. 1485-1489
Chantilly, Musee Conde_Ms 65, fol. 113v




























Angels Freeing Souls from Purgatory
From a Book of Hours
French (Amiens), c. 1486-1500
Private Collection

Angels Delivering Souls from Purgatory
Single Page from a Manuscript
Spanish, 16rh Century
Private Collection

Johann Michael Rottmayr, Angels Freeing Souls from Purgatory
German, c. 1704-1706
Breslau, Church of Saint Mathias
Joseph Roques, A Soul Freed from Purgatory
French, c. 1801-1825
Toulouse, Musee des Augustins

The Effect of Graces from the Power of Christ’s Sacrifice

The most theologically sophisticated images are those that depict the effect of God's intervention in human history through the birth of Jesus and His ultimate sacrifice, death and resurrection.  These images present their subject in the form of allegory and symbol, not so much in the concrete way of other images which ask for prayer or demonstrate the effect of prayer.  


Follower of Jean Pichore, The Annunciation 
and the Effects on Purgatory and Hell
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1490-1500
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M7, fol. 5r
This shows the effect of the Annunciation, of
Mary's yes to God's request on the souls in
Purgatory and on those in Hell.  The memory 
of her yes and its result heartens those in 
Purgatory and drives the demons in Hell to
fresh acts of cruelty.

Goswijn van der Weyden, Fons Pietatis
Flemish, c. 1500
Goetenborg (SV), Goetenborgd Konstmuseum
Here we see the effects of Christ's Blood, dispensed to
the Souls in Purgatory by angels.  The Virgin Mary is 
also interceding for them.  If you look closely to an
enlargement (click on the picture) you can see that her
left hand points down toward them, while her right 
holds her breast, reminding her Son that she sustained
His human life at its beginnings, as she prays for the 
souls below.

































Jean Bellegame, The Mystic Bath
French, 1500-1525
Lille_Musee des Beaux-Arts
Another example of the effect of Christ's Sacrifice.  
Souls are rejuvenated by it as they arrive from 
Purgatory (glimpsed on the left behind the main
figures).

Souls Released from Purgatory by the Crucifixion
From the Hours of Antoine le Bon
French (Lorraine), 1533
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 302, fol. 58





























The Death of Christ Redeems Souls from Purgatory
Italian, 17th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
School of Alonso Cano, Souls in Purgatory Liberated
by the Cross
Spanish, c. 1650
Detroit, Institute of Arts




























A Votive Image of the Souls in Purgatory Liberated by the Prayers of the Saints Before the Blessed Sacrament
Alpine Region, Early 19th Century
Private Collection


At this midway point in the month of the Holy Souls it seems a good idea to take a few minutes to pray as the Church has long prayed, for the dead, those whom we knew and loved and, perhaps most especially, for those we never knew who may have no one to pray on their behalf.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen. (Traditional prayer for the Dead.)



© M. Duffy, 2017


  1. As for instance, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 “If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one's workIf the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.”  This is as St. Paul urges his readers to be sure that the lives they build on the foundation of Jesus Christ, will be true ones, for otherwise, they will have to endure a testing by fire.
  2. More about the Communion of Saints can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part I, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 9, Paragraph 5, Numbers 946-962 (link http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2B.HTM)