My friend Billie Mercer of Billieblog sent me a photograph that she took in the church of "Nuestra Señora de la Salud" (Our Lady of Good Health) in San Miguel de Allende and she said that she has seen the the same thing in a number of other churches but didn't understand the meaning behind it. She asked me if I could explain it since I am a Catholic. You can see in the first photo below that it is a carved diorama of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Christ Child and below them are figures of people among flames. Billie said that it is all enclosed in a case with glass on the front and the whole thing probably isn't more than 16" x 20" x 12" in size. What the diorama depicts is called "Las Ánimas del Purgatorio" or "The Poor Souls in Purgatory". The Blessed Virgin is pictured in her aspect of "Nuestra Señora del Carmen" who is the "Santa Patrona" or "Patron Saint" of the Carmelite order. The poor souls in Purgatory are asking her to intercede for them and shorten their stay among the flames. That is the short explanation. However, this is a very interesting subject and I thank Billie for bringing it up. If you can stick with me a bit longer I would like to fill in some more details.
We all know that on November 1st (All Saints Day) and November 2nd (All Souls Day) here in Mexico we celebrate "El Dia de los Muertos or "The Day of the Dead". In the old days "El Dia de los Muertos" was known as "El Dia de las Ánimas", or "The Day of the Poor Souls". All Saints Day was celebrated in the spring for several centuries until Pope Gregory IV moved it to November 1st in A.D. 835 . The commemoration of the dead on November 2nd, All Souls Day, was formally established by the Church in the fourteenth century because November is supposedly the saddest month of the year when nature ends its cycle with autumn and winter, and invites recollection and reflection before the celebration of Christmas and the coming New Year. While November 1st and 2nd are the focus of the liturgical celebrations, the entire month of November is associated in the Roman Catholic tradition with prayer for the departed. The phrase for it in Latin is "Commemoratio Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum" which means "Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed".
Before I go any further I think I should explain the concept of Purgatory a bit. In the Roman Catholic doctrine, Purgatory is a place or condition of temporary punishment meant to cleanse those destined for heaven but not quite ready for it. According to this doctrine, faith in Christ and acceptance of his saving grace gains one forgiveness for their sins and eternal salvation, but not release from the punishment due for sinning. It is a place or a state of being believed to exist after death, in which the souls of persons are purified by making amends for such offenses committed in life that do not merit eternal damnation. After this purge of the impurities of sin, the souls are ready to be received into Heaven. Through the centuries the actual description of Purgatory and the activities through which souls are purified have only been limited by the imaginations of the living. Fire has often been the way in which people have imagined the purification process and thoughts about the actual existence of Purgatory go all the way back to the Old Testament. In the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible, the Catholic version, it tells us in 2nd Maccabees Chapter 12:
41: Then they all blessed the just judgment of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden.
42: And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought him, that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten. But the most valiant Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, for as much as they saw before their eyes what had happened, because of the sins of those that were slain.
43: And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection.
44: (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead),
45: And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. With godliness... Judas hoped that these men who died fighting for the cause of God and religion, might find mercy: either because they might be excused from mortal sin by ignorance; or might have repented of their sin, at least at their death.
46: It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.
The Maccabees scripture established the rationale for Purgatory and it was Dante Aligueri in1308 who, using his vivid imagination, sketched out some of the whimsical details. He wrote the Divine Comedy which describes Dante's journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso). Most people are only familiar with the name "Dante's Inferno" but there is also a "Dante's Purgatory" and a "Dante's Paradise". His fictional descriptions of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven fueled the imaginations of countless other writers and painters who followed him including Michelangelo who depicted all three over the altar on the wall of the Sistine Chapel at Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome in 1535. In Dante's story, one must climb Mount Purgatory before one gets to Heaven. The description of the place is the antithesis of Dante's Hell. The Purgatory of Dante is a steep mountain composed of concentric circles and successive cornices of serrated edges where souls are purified. When the Archangel Lucifer originally fell from Heaven he formed a great depression in the Earth which is "supposed" to be under the City of Jerusalem and is formed of concentric circles leading downward. At the bottom of this depression, according to Dante, Lucifer awaits us. The action caused by the terrible force of Lucifer's fall and the formation of the Hell pit caused a mountain to be formed on the opposite side of the world leading up to Heaven and this mountain is Mount Purgatory. According to Dante it is surmounted on its peak with a platform that is the Garden of Paradise from which the souls ascend to Heaven. The souls are transported to Purgatory after death by a boat that is propelled by an Angel. One can see that after Dante's colorful description, the speculation about Purgatory was pretty much up for grabs.
This brings us back to Billie's photograph. Since the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Purgatory as been portrayed by painters and sculptures in a similar fashion. There are souls among the flames and above them there is either a cross or the risen Christ and the souls have arms outstretched in supplication and longing for Heaven. There are often souls with the markings of a bishop or priest or king to show that all sinners are treated alike. Sometimes they are portrayed in a group and sometimes they appear singly either as a male or female engulfed in flames from the chest down. In the aspect of a single soul they are known as "Ánima Sola" or "Lonely Soul". They represent souls who have no living friends or relatives to pray for them or leave an ofrenda at their tomb. For this reason we are encouraged to pray for the "lost" souls and leave a little offering for unknown souls on our family "ofrenda" or altar. The "Ánima Sola" is more often portrayed as a woman than a man and there is a legend about a woman named "Celestine" who chose not to give water to Christ while he was carrying the cross to Calvary. A cult that has arisen over the years concerning this legend but it is considered a myth by the Church and there is no credence given to it.
About the middle of the seventeenth century there was a change in the way "Las Ánimas del Purgatorio" were portrayed and this has to do with something called "The Sabbatine Privilege" of "Nuestra Señora del Carmen". Back in the year 1251 Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock of the Carmelite Order. St. Simon Stock was an English hermit. He received the name "stock" because he lived in the hollowed trunk or "stock" of a tree. She purportedly gave St. Simon a cloth scapular for the Carmelites with the following promise, saying: "Receive, My beloved son, this habit of thy order: this shall be to thee and to all Carmelites a privilege, that whosoever dies clothed in this shall never suffer eternal fire .... It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger, and a pledge of peace." Then in 1322, the Blessed Virgin appeared to Pope John XXII and told him that she would rescue from Purgatory those that wore the scapular and followed a specific discipline of abstinence and prayer called the called the Sabbatine Privilege. For the next several centuries this was a controversial issue that was addressed by several popes and finally the Holy Roman General Inquisition under Paul V issued a decree on 20 January, 1613, following effect:
It is permitted to the Carmelite Fathers to preach that the Christian people may piously believe in the help which the souls of brothers and members, who have departed this life in charity, have worn in life the scapular, have ever observed chastity, have recited the Little Hours [Prayers specified by the Blessed Virgin], or, if they cannot read, have observed the fast days of the Church, and have abstained from flesh meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays (except when Christmas falls on such days), may derive after death — especially on Saturdays, the day consecrated by the Church to the Blessed Virgin — through the unceasing intercession of Mary, her pious petitions, her merits, and her special protection.
Several other Popes along the way added their affirmation although the subject remained controversial among theologians. In 1726 the promise of the scapular was extended to the entire Latin American Church by Pope Benedict XIII. In 1767 Pope Benedict XIV concurred and even strongly encouraged the use of the scapular and it has also been encouraged by several Popes since that time up to and including Pope Pius XII who was Pope when I was in grammar school. The impact of Nuestra Señora del Carmen and the Sabbatine privilege really became evident in Mexico and was very strong from about 1800 onwards until the 1920's. Most of the "Ánimas del Purgatorio" that one sees in the old churches that depict Nuestra Señora del Carmen date from that period. One can tell more or less the age by the style of crown that she and the Christ Child wear since it is very tall and stylized. More modern versions of the Virgin show a much simpler crown.
When I was a little boy the nuns encouraged us to wear the scapular which consisted of two pieces of brown cloth connected by two cords that represents the tunic of the Carmelites. One wears the scapular by placing the cords over one's shoulders letting each little square of cloth hang down, one on the chest and the other on the back. Do I wear a scapular today? Well, not exactly. My wife Gina wears a tiny version of the scapular tucked down inside her bra where she lost a breast to cancer and I carry one in my wallet. According to the promise of Our Lady if you should die wearing the scapular she will free you from Purgatory on the Saturday following your death if you have faithfully followed her rules. Well, I don't exactly follow all of the rules but what's the harm? If she lets me cool my heels in Purgatory for an extra week or two I probably deserve it.
(Click image to enlarge)
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