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.
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 cemetery beneath the church soon filled up with bones and grieving relatives poured into the church to say masses for the departed and to plead with the saints to intercede on their behalf (Anime del Purgatorio means “souls in purgatory”). The veneration of the dead grew and the paintings and sculptures inside the church were mainly concerned with death, including the altarpiece which shows the Madonna helping souls in Purgatory. People even started to “adopt” skulls whose identity was unknown and to pray for them, a practice which intensified during wartime when it was not always possible to locate the bodies of ones own relatives.
The Catholic Church disapproved of this cult of death and eventually banned it in 1969, closing the church at the same time. However it later reopened and today there is a museum attached to the church, as well as a programme of events, especially on All Souls’ Day, the traditional day of celebration of the dead.