Wednesday, November 2, 2011

November 2 – All Souls

Goswin van der Weyden
The Blood of Christ Freeing Souls in Purgatory
Flenish, 1480-1520
Goetenborg (SV), Goetenborgs Konstmuseum
In this image by the grandson of the great Rogier van der Weyden we see God 
the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit above a fountain filled with the 
Blood of Christ, which two angels draw into chalices and pour on the souls 
in Purgatory.  The Risen Jesus and Mary stand on either side of the fountain. 

Catholics believe in the Communion of Saints.  This is the belief that all the faithful, living and dead, form part of a Body of which the Head is Christ. Since there is no “now” and no “then” in God all members of the Communion are alive in Christ, “death no longer has power” (Romans 6:9).

On the first of November the Church honored those who have attained the final glory of heaven with the feast of All Saints. The day after the Church turns our attention to another part of the Communion of Saints, those who, while no longer among the living, have not yet attained the goal of heaven. They form the second group described in the article on the three states of the Church found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating 'in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is". 1

Those that “have died and are being purified” are the Souls for whom the Church prays on November 2nd. Their purification is occurring in a state called Purgatory. Purgatory is not hell. It is a temporary state, through which souls pass on their journey after death, where the residue of sin is purged away. The exact nature of the purgation through which they pass cannot be known on this side of the grave. Strong tradition suggests that it is a purgation by fire, but this is only supposition. The duration of the purgation is also unknown, for our concept of the passage of time has no meaning in eternity.

Jacques de Besancon, Praying for the Souls in Purgatory
from the Legenda aurea of Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), ca.1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
 MS Francais 245, fol. 162
All the souls in Purgatory are saved. Their destination is heaven, once their purgation is completed, but they can do nothing to assist themselves. That is up to us. Prayers, especially the supreme prayer of the Mass, offered on their behalf can assist them and lift some of the burden of their expiation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others”. 2  Most people do this by offering prayers and Masses for the deceased of their own family, while others offer their prayers for those that may be in most need of assistance and have no one in this world who can or will pray for them. On November 2nd the Church encourages us all to remember in our prayers all those who have died but have not yet realized the Beatific Vision in heaven.

Once the Last Judgment has taken place (sometime in the future) Purgatory will cease to exist.

Visions of Purgatory are not among the most common of images in the history of art. There are many more images of the Last Judgment, with its stark alternatives of heaven and hell. However, there is some history of purgatorial images to draw on.

Jean le Noir and collaborators
Purged Souls Carried to Heaven
from Breviary of Charles V
French (Paris), ca.1364-1370
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
 MS Latin 1052, fol. 556v

Among the most common in the Middle Ages were images in Books of Hours, especially if the individual book of Hours included the Office for the Dead. From a limited search for these images I was struck by how similar many of the images were.

In many cases the small, naked figures of a man and a woman are shown, kneeling or standing, amidst flames while they fold their hands in prayer.

Hugo van Woerden, Office of the Dead
Netherlands, 1475-1500
The Hague, Koninkllijk Bibliothek,
MS 76 G13, fol. 85v and 86r 

Masters of Dirc van Delf, Tafel van den Kersten Ghelove
Netherlands (perhaps Utrecht), 1405-1410
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 691, fol.207r, detail

In at least one other manuscript, multiple souls of men and women standing in a river of fire are assisted by angels who hold rosaries and aspirgils (instruments used to sprinkle holy water), representing the prayers and good works offered on their behalf by the living.

Another popular image, especially in the 17th century was the release of the souls in Purgatory through the intercession of the Virgin Mary and the saints in heaven.  

Ludovico Carracci, Freeing the Souls in Purgatory
Italian, ca. 1610
Vatican City, Vatican Pinacoteca

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

Other images, such as that at the top of this page,  or at right  show the effects of Christ’s sacrifice in releasing souls.

But what is surely the most interesting image of Purgatory appears in the background of a fresco “portrait” of Dante painted by Domenico di Michelino.

Domenico di Michelino, Dante Illuminating Florence With His Poem
Italian, 1465
Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Called Dante Illuminating Florence with His Poem, the painting shows representations of the city of Florence (at right) and all three of the states he explored in his great poem, the Divine Comedy. To Dante’s right is an image of Hell, over his extended right hand is the image of Purgatory and, above all, are the spheres of Paradise.

Domenico di Michelino, Dante Illuminating Florence
detail of Purgatory
Dante’s image of Purgatory is an extremely interesting one. In his vision it 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.

Purgatorio is undoubtedly my favorite part of the Divine Comedy. I reread it every few years, more frequently than I reread the other two parts. It has a wonderful atmosphere. All the souls seem happy and contented to be where they are. They know that they will ultimately enter heaven and seem happy to work toward their final cleansing from the baggage they brought with them from their earthly existence. There’s a sort of comfort in that, since almost everyone will bring similar baggage on departure.

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.)
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 1993, Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 9, Paragraph 5, Item 2, Number 954.

2. See above, Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 9, Paragraph 5, Number 947.

Both citations may be found at

© M. Duffy, 2011.  Additional images added 2016.

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