Napoli (I): Santa Maria delle Anime de Purgatorio

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Napoli has had its share of death. Death by volcano (Vesuvius) and earthquakes, famine, cholera and the plague have on several occasions taken their toll. The dead appear to have a prominent place among the living in this city in the south of Italy. On every street corner death is on display in for example the richly decorated shrines dedicated to a variety of  Saints one finds photographs of the recently deceased, and also the poster size obituaries on the walls definitely can’t be missed. And then there appear to be skulls everywhere –  in all sizes, material, and forms  – that seem to function as a ‘memento mori’ as well as a kind of good luck charm. They refer to Napoli’s maybe most intriguing death cult that is dedicated to the souls in Purgatory.  All these underline that death is not so much an event but a process, and the belief that the living can influence the position of the dead, who are, in turn, perceived as having power in life.
The Santa Maria delle Amine del Purgatorio ad Arco Church was built in 1616 by a group of noblemen who founded Opera Pia, a humanitarian organisation to help the poor, the sick and women in trouble.  This laical congregation was dedicated to assistance of the needy in particularly the lost and most miserable among the poor: the lost souls in purgatory. These anime pezzentelle (‘abandoned souls’) who have no one to take care of them – to pray for them and help them transition to Heaven –  are adopted by the living who can by performing the right rituals reduce the time the soul has to spend in purgatory. In return the souls can intercede for them to obtain certain graces. The ritual practice of the cult is directed towards the skull, and as for long churches used to be designated places for burial there are plenty of skulls available.
The Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco has a rich baroque style upper church, where mainly the paintings and marble and bronze skulls refer to the idea of a ‘good death’ and purgatory. But nothing uncommon to churches in general. The lower church is quite different. Descending the stairs one reaches an austere and bare room; in the middle, there is a marker for a grave – representing the many anonymous dead buried here, and an altar with a simple black cross. The alcoves hold pictures and flowers dedicated to the more recent dead.
A corridor leads to another room where there are the tombs of the Mastrillo family (founders of Opera Pia) and so-called Holy Land burials (benefactors of the congregation).  In the corridor and the room there are like a dozen of boxed shrines with skulls, placed on pillows or lace, and decorated with flowers and rosaries. Also other offerings are placed with the skull, like coins, candles and bus tickets. Probably the most visited skull in this church is that of ‘Princess Lucia’ a girl who died at the age of 16 and whose origins are not really clear, but she is seen as the patron of young married women and is seen as a mediator for spinsters. The skull is covered in a bridal veil and arranged on a white cushion while the place is covered with flowers, pictures of saints, photographs of different people, and many votive offerings.
In 1969 the cult was banned by ecclesial courts after being labeled as ‘superstitious’ and ‘unacceptable.’ This did not prevent the cult continuing until 1980 when an earthquake led to the closure of the church and its underground cemetery. Both were reopened in 1992 after substantial restoration work. Since then the lower church is marked as a ‘museum’ and only accessible with a guide after paying an entrance fee of 5€. But it is interesting to see the weird tension between a museum setting and a still functioning place of worship (the same kind of tension I experienced when visiting Rumi’s grave in Konya, Turkey). Unfortunately, I was only in Naples for a few days – it would be good to come back and stay a bit longer to see the current ‘lived’ aspects of this particular death cult.


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