In 1274 Purgatory was formally accepted as Catholic doctrine and defined by the Church as the place of purification through which souls pass on their way to paradise.
Some decades later, the Council of Florence added that the suffrages of the faithful still living were efficacious in bringing souls in purgatory relief from such punishment, and in 1476 Pope Sixtus IV confirmed that indulgences might be earned by the living for souls in purgatory, thus shortening individual souls’ time there.
At the beginning of 1600 a group of Neapolitan noblemen founded the Congrega di Purgatorio ad Arco, a group dedicated to burying the poor and praying for their souls in purgatory.
According to the Catholic Church, Purgatory is a place for souls who have not been completely freed of sin. Though the living can get immediate forgiveness for their sins, complete redemption happens over time. If someone dies before that process is complete then the soul needs to be purified in Purgatory so that they are holy enough to enter Heaven. But the living can expedite the time needed for purification with masses and prayers for these souls caught in limbo.
So, we are in Italy, exactly in Naples, and if the Fontanelle cemetery caves are probably the more famous, and larger, burial place of city’s unnamed and unfortunate dead, Santa Maria della Anime ad Arco (Saint Mary of the Souls of Purgatory) is more intimate and suggestive. And despite the increasing tourists, the Neapolitan Cult of the Dead still has lot of followers in this little church.
The church dates back to 1638, few years later that the Congrega di Purgatorio ad Arco was formed, and below the church was a hypogeum which is used by the Congrega di Purgatorio ad Arco for burying the city’s poor.
A situation that worsened incredibly after the Black Death hit Naples in 1656, killing half the city’s population. Of the estimated 150,000 dead, many were hastily buried in pits or existing tufa caves without markers.
Along with Fontanelle, the underground crypt, was filled with the remains of these poor souls. As they often weren’t given a proper Catholic burial or grave marker, it was supposed they would languish in purgatory before their souls continued on to heaven. It was believed per Catholic doctrine that the living could help the souls on their way by praying for them, and this gave rise to the “Neapolitan Skull Cult.”
People cared for the skulls, adopting certain skulls and bringing gifts in exchange for special favors from the dead, who, it was believed, were closer to God than the living and thus endowed to a certain extent with saintly powers.
Some skulls believed to be extra powerful developed followings, the most famous being “Princess Lucia” know as the “Virgin Bride.” Her skull has become sort of a patron saint of brides, and her patrons have set her skull on a white cushion and adorned it with a tiara and a veil.
There are a couple of stories about who Lucia was. Some believe that Lucia died of a broken heart when her father refused to let her marry the man she loved, and the veil she was never allowed to wear in life covers her skull in death. In another version of this legend Lucia was the only daughter of a nobleman. When she died of tuberculosis in 1789, right after her wedding to the Marquess Giacomo Santomango, her father buried her in the cemetery at Purgatorio ad Arco because he was a patron of the souls there.
Practitioners believed it is a legitimate form of Catholic worship until 1969 when Archbishop of Naples, Corrado Ursi decided to suppress the practice, and decreed that expressions of cult addressed to human remains were arbitrary, superstitious, and therefore inadmissible.
So, the Fontanelle cemetery was closed, and the Cult of the Dead was suppressed as a superstitious heresy relying too much on ancient folklore and myth.
In 1980 the Irpinia earthquake struck Naples, closing the church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco, and effectively suppressing remaining activities of the Cult of the Dead.
In 1992 the church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco was reopened after restoration work was completed, and since 2010 also the Fontanelle Cemetery was reopened.
At the gate of the church there are two bronze skulls and crossbones, inside are paintings of the Madonna of the Souls in Purgatory, winged skulls, and scenes depicting the deaths of saints.
In the hypogeum, or underground crypt, there are graves and wooden boxes containing human remains. This is where the Congrega di Purgatorio ad Arco buried the poor and said prayers for the souls in Purgatory.
To curtail the Cult Of the Dead, the sites have been open to tourism in hopes that admission fees, tourists, and security cameras will deter believers!