Postcard from Naples, Italy: Praying to free poor souls from purgatory

Lucia (viewed through a protective mesh screen) is the most loved soul. The skull with the bridal veil, adorned with a precious crown, is kept next to a pair of skulls that, in the popular imagination, represent the servants of the young girl, a young princess who died very young immediately after the wedding. To this soul the popular tradition has dedicated a small altar electing her as protector of the brides and mediator for prayers and invocations.

from the website of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco

What happens to an unfortunate Catholic soul who was good his or her entire life save some technicality, such as not being able to utter that last confession or receive the final last rite of extreme unction from a priest? Or who was left with an accumulation of unconfessed venial sins, such as losing patience, blurting out abusive language or hating one’s neighbor enough to wish evil upon him?

There is a spot for those departed, but if falls a short of heaven. Purgatory.

Purgatory, sometimes described as a purifying fire, need only be temporary – provided those on earth pray for them. In Naples, there are those faithful who devote themselves with fervor to freeing souls for their flights up to heaven.

Some refer to those practitioners as members of a cult of the dead. Results of their assistance in caring for the skulls of those who died lacking requisite sacraments regarded as keys to heaven were seen in an earlier post about Cimetero delle Fontanelle.

But Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco is not as remote as that cavernous home for skulls. Built in 1638, the church is in the heart of Naples. The church dedicated to the faithful praying for those in purgatory is a handsome one, but the hypogeum, an underground church with crypts, garners the attention of followers of the cult of pezzentelle, or souls in purgatory.

The ancient cult of the Purgatory Souls, guarded for centuries in the underground of the 17th-century Church of Santa Maria of the souls of Purgatory in Arco, arose spontaneously, at the beginning of 1600, when the new counter-reformation church proposed the care of the souls of the dead as one of the principal religious practices to establish, through prayers and masses in suffrage, a liturgical link between the living and the dead…. The living, as a means to atone for earthly sins, were concerned with fostering the ascent of souls to Paradise and assuring them of the coolness of the flames of Purgatory during the period of tribulation….

The relationship is established through the adoption of a skull, which according to tradition is the seat of the soul, which is chosen, cared for, looked after and hosted in special niches. The pezzentella soul (from the Latin petere: asking to obtain), anonymous or abandoned soul, invokes the refrisco, the alleviation of the sentence; and the person who adopted it, the person in life, asks for grace and assistance….

The grates that connect the street and underground enable voices, the cries, the prayers to reach at any time the skull, which enjoys the protection. A thought, a flower, a lit candle, support the hard fight for Paradise the souls of Purgatory generously welcome in the vast Underground of the church.

from the website of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco

While the Catholic church unsuccessfully has tried to extinguish the practices of the cult-like faithful, it seems reassuring that, if purgatory exists, there are people out there working to free the unfortunate souls trapped in its flames.

So many things those nuns never taught me…. Many of Roman Catholicism’s more interesting quirks never made it across the ocean to little Star of the Sea Church in Virginia Beach.

Postcard from Naples, Italy: Skulls of lost souls up for adoption

Quando finisce la partita il re ed il pedone finiscono nella stessa scatola.

The English translation would be: When you finish the game, the king and pawn end up in the same box. In other words: we all meet the same end.

“Best Italian Proverbs,” Rome, Food, Travel

There appears no shortage of ancient Catholic churches in Naples. Yet even by the 16th century, their walls, floors and underground catacombs were oversubscribed by the faithful demanding interment inside. Something needed to give.

Clever undertakers found a solution. They began digging up older remains, the ones of souls long forgotten, to free up space for the newcomers. The ancient bones were carted away discreetly to shallow graves in an enormous system of caves – natural caverns extended by ancient Greek and Roman tunnels and quarries for building materials for the city.

Then came the plague of 1656, decimating the population. The spiraling number of corpses led to their mass disposal atop the existing shallow graves in the caves.

The anonymous pile might have been forgotten were it not for an end-of-the-century flood washing all the bones out and depositing them helter-skelter on the streets below. The bones were returned to the cave, which then was deemed a more official location for disposing of deceased paupers.

An 1837 cholera epidemic swelled the number of residents unceremoniously dumped together in disorderly fashion. The charnel house became known as the Cemetery of the Fountains – Cimitero delle Fontanelle.

In 1872, a priest took pity upon all of the remains of the departed, many tossed inside without receiving their last rites. He had them sorted and arranged in a more orderly fashion, which attracted renewed interest among compassionate Catholics.

A cult arose, as people began to lovingly adopt skulls – capuchelle – of the abandoned souls – pezzentelle – in return for protection. They assigned the unknown names that appeared to them in dreams. They cleaned them, brought them small tokens of their affection, and kept them company.

Then, in 1969, the Archbishop of Naples decreed the practice fetishism and closed the entire ossuary to visitors. The deprivation of visitation rights to ancient adopted kin proved unpopular.

The cemetery was restored in early 2000 but was only unlocked for visitation a couple of times a year. Following protests including an overnight occupation, the cavernous space was reopened on a daily basis in 2010.

Only spotted one caregiver inside. She dashed down the entire length, her boyfriend lagging a ways behind. She stopped mid-right in the last chapel. Obviously, she only had eyes for but one skull amongst the abundance. She stooped to present something to her capuchelle, murmured a word or two, and then dashed back out as quickly as she entered. Her fidanzato rushed to keep up.

As you wander in the dimly lit chambers with bare rock walls and soaring ceilings, the space feels as hallowed as that of any ornately gilded church nave. The named capuchelle do indeed began to assume personalities of a sort, indicating that no two skulls are alike. They all are individuals; each with a story.

As in Mexican cemeteries on the first days of November, by the time you leave, keeping company with the dead no longer appears as bizarre. Eerie, yet somehow soothing.

And there are 30,000, 40,000, maybe even 50,000 more skulls stacked up, waiting for adoption.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Church tour for the fleet of foot

No time to pause for even the slightest genuflection in this lightening-fast tour of more than a dozen churches in Rome.

You might think this blog has dragged you through every single church in Rome, but, no. One could spend a year visiting a church a day without exhausting that supply. Rome is divided into 339 parishes, and there are close to 70 basilicas within the city. Probably all are worth ducking into for a visit.

But, mercifully, our tour stops here.

On this whiplash final lap, am going to point out two major relics of the type upon which most American Catholics never lay their eyes. The reliquary above is said to contain “the first foot to be entered in the tomb of Christ,” that of Mary Magdalene enshrined in the Basilica di San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. And the other is a portion of the head of Saint John the Baptist housed in a chapel in the Basilica di San Silvestro in Capite.

I wonder whether anyone ever has developed a scavenger hunt for spying saintly parts tucked away in nooks and crannies in churches in Rome.

A shortcut to encountering a massive number of bones, if one is so inclined, is to seek out the Capuchin Museum and Crypt tucked under Santa Maria della Concezione. The church was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII (to whom you were introduced during my “wild things” museum meltdown) in recognition of a relative who was a Capuchin friar, Cardinal Antonio Barberini. Cardinal Barberini had the remains of thousands of his Capuchin brethren transferred to the crypt, which provided monks with a creative side unusual materials for their assemblages.

The museum offers a rather dry history of the Capuchin order, somewhat interesting if not for the macabre magnetic pull of the crypt you know lies on the far side. I doubt much has changed there since Mark Twain’s visit long ago, so I will let him describe the interior:

There were six divisions in the apartment, and each division was ornamented with a style of decoration peculiar to itself – and these decorations were in every instance formed of human bones! There were shapely arches, built wholly of thigh bones; there were startling pyramids, built wholly of grinning skulls; there were quaint architectural structures of various kinds, built of shin bones and the bones of the arm; on the wall were elaborate frescoes, whose curving vines were made of knotted human vertebrae; whose delicate tendrils were made of sinews and tendons; whose flowers were formed of knee-caps and toe-nails. Every lasting portion of the human frame was represented in these intricate designs (they were by Michael Angelo, I think,) and there was a careful finish about the work, and an attention to details that betrayed the artist’s love of his labors as well as his schooled ability. I asked the good-natured monk who accompanied us, who did this? And he said, “We did it” – meaning himself and his brethren upstairs. I could see that the old friar took a high pride in his curious show. We made him talkative by exhibiting an interest we never betrayed to guides.

“Who were these people?”

“We – upstairs – Monks of the Capuchin order – my brethren.”

“How many departed monks were required to upholster these six parlors?”

“These are the bones of four thousand.”

“It took a long time to get enough?”

“Many, many centuries.”

“Their different parts are well separated – skulls in one room, legs in another, ribs in another – there would be stirring times here for a while if the last trump should blow. Some of the brethren might get hold of the wrong leg, in the confusion, and the wrong skull, and find themselves limping, and looking through eyes that were wider apart or closer together than they were used to. You can not tell any of these parties apart, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes, I know many of them.”

He put his finger on a skull. “This was Brother Anselmo – dead three hundred years – a good man.”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

And, as this is a whiplash tour of churches, our friend Chris’ seconds-long forbidden video recording of the interior seems appropriate.

 

I asked the monk if all the brethren upstairs expected to be put in this place when they died. He answered quietly:

“We must all lie here at last.”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

Catholicism remains a religion of many mysteries, even for someone who was raised as one, particularly during the years when mass still was said in Latin. Like, when near the end of the service, the priest would talk about Nabisco crackers: “Dominus vobiscum.” “The Lord be with you,” lost in translation between the priest’s lips and my ears.