Chiesa del Sacro Cuore di Gesu’
Lungotevere Prati 12
admission free, donations more than welcome
Rome’s Museum of Souls in Purgatory is a little place where things get curiouser and curiouser. To start with, it’s inside a Neogothic church that looks like a piece of English countryside blasted down in the midst of the roar of Lungotevere traffic. What’s a nice church like that doing in a place like this?
Inside the church, past the beggar at the doorway, it’s a sanctuary of incense and an oasis of stained glass calm. But hot times sparked the collection that inspired this museum. One day in 1897 Father Victor Jouet was going about his duties when the candles on the altar to the right of the main altar set the wallpaper on fire. The flames were extinguished without too much ado, but Father Jouet was amazed to see the image of a penitent soul revealed on the wall, just where the flames had been highest. He interpreted it as a sign: someone was begging him to say prayers for their soul to help get them out of purgatory.
The image that sparked Father Jouet’s collection is concealed behind the left hand angel in the tryptic
Father Jouet was amazed to find that there were many similar stories to his: stories of souls who manifested their misery to the living by leaving scorch marks on prayer books or clothing. He began to collect the singed objects for his museum.
Father Jouet’s bust in a pose which Cassandra assumes is supposed to express benevolence, but does it?
So just what is purgatory, how do you get there, what do you do there and why to souls want to get out?
We’ve all heard of heaven and we’ve all heard of hell, but some of us may not know that Catholicism has a kind of holding pen for souls, purgatory. Some souls are good and pure and when the body that housed them on earth dies they go straight to heaven via the pearly gates. Others are horrible, have committed mortal sins and go straight to hell via fire and brimstone. Other souls, neither that good nor that bad, have committed venial, forgivable sins and are destined for heaven after they are purified in purgatory. Purgatory is a place to cleanse your soul.
So just how do you cleanse a soul? While you’re still alive, self sacrifice, deeds of generosity and voluntary self-mortification help, but you may just die and find yourself with some cleansing still to do. There are a couple of ways out of this worst-case scenario.
Souls in purgatory are frequently shown waist-deep in flames that burn away the dross of their transgressions, an unpleasant and painful process that will eventually lead to purification and salvation. But if a living person wants to help the soul of a loved one out of the flames the best way is to pray. Prayers offered by the living for the dead are a way of helping to decrease their time in purgatory, releasing them to heaven.
The Purgatory Museum is in a room to the right of the main altar. A custodian who’s well used to seeing more curious than devout will lead you to it, passing by a prominently placed collection basket. Past a copy of Turin’s Sacro Sindone, the Holy Shroud, there you have it: a long showcase with objects supposedly displaying the manifestations left by poor souls burning in Purgatory, begging the living to pray for them and help release them from their torment. Dante didn’t seem to think that there were flames in purgatory; the version he recounted in the Divine Comedy was just a faraway island. But the souls who left scorch marks on the objects in Father Jouet’s museum seem to prove him wrong. If there is no fire in purgatory, why do these soul’s signs to the living always have to do with flame?
Suggested reading:Day by Day for the Holy Souls by Susan Tassone