You might not expect a grinning bronze skull to be the first thing that greets you as you approach a church. But look more closely at the façade of Purgatorio ad Arco, in the historic centre of Naples, and you will see dozens of stone skulls, and a few crossbones as well. Clearly this is no ordinary church, but why was it built and what was it used for?
Prayers For Dead Souls
The church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio Ad Arco was built in the 17th century as a place for the poor to be buried. The city’s churches and graveyards were full, a situation that worsened with the advent of the Black Death. The cemetery beneath the church soon filled up with bones and, because they had not been given a full Catholic burial, there was thought to be a risk that the souls of the departed would remain in Purgatory. So grieving relatives poured into the church to say masses for them, and to plead with the saints to intercede on their behalf (Anime del Purgatorio means “souls in purgatory”).
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The veneration of the dead grew and people even started to “adopt” skulls whose identity was unknown and to pray for them. This practice intensified during wartime when it was not always possible to locate the bodies of one’s own relatives. There was often a quid pro quo in these intercessions, as it was believed that some of the skulls were in a position to confer favours on the living.
The paintings and sculptures inside the church were mainly concerned with death. These included the altarpiece by Massimo Stanzione which shows the Madonna helping souls in Purgatory, and a number of carvings of winged skulls on the walls beside the altar.
Cult Of The Dead
Over time the Catholic Church began to disapprove of this cult of death and to regard it as a heresy. It was eventually banned in 1969, and the church was closed at the same time. However it reopened in 1992, and a museum with paintings and artefacts was added. Today the cult of the dead continues to flourish, and the church has a programme of events.
The most important occasion is All Souls’ Day, the traditional day of celebration of the dead. When the church was first established hundreds of visitors would arrive at the church on this day, a custom that continues today.
Visiting Purgatorio Ad Arco
You can explore the main part of Purgatorio Ad Arco at any time when it is open. However the lower church (including the hypogeum where the bodies were buried) and the museum are only accessible by guided tour – see the website for details.