Purgatory in Limbo; 17th-Century Inspiration

And More Confusion Regarding the Hereafter

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 21, 2007 (Zenit.org).- A couple of months ago I was standing in the Sistine Chapel when I overheard an odd exchange in front of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.” A woman asked her husband which part of the painting was purgatory, to which her husband answered that it didn’t matter because the Church had abolished purgatory anyway. (Yes, you really do hear it all in there!)

Now, looking for purgatory in an image of the “Last Judgment” is not a sign of great theological acumen, so I thought nothing of it, but as the months wore on, more and more pilgrims in Rome — often devout people well-versed in their faith — were asking whether it was true that the Church had rid itself of purgatory.

The question can be solved, of course, by a quick glance at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which provides authoritative answers for this sort of thing.

In it we are taught: “All those who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of Heaven” (No. 1030). It also explains that “the Church gives the name “purgatory to this final purification of the elect” (No. 1031). So, purgatory is up and running just as much as ever.

The question remains, where did this confusion come from? Last October, the International Theological Commission convened to discuss limbo, and found that the theory of an eternal middle ground between heaven and hell — where souls could enjoy a “natural happiness” — was no longer useful for the faithful.

Many newspapers, often at a loss when covering the Vatican, saw an opportunity for a catchy headline: “Pope Abolishes Limbo.” Here began the confusion.

The London-based Times newspaper didn’t report the exact words of the commission, but printed: “A Times source said that the theologians’ finding basically says ‘that all children who die go to heaven'” — a misleading statement that was repeated by many other sources.

Unlike purgatory, the existence of limbo has never been part of official Catholic doctrine. It was, as Benedict XVI said, a theological construct.

The idea of limbo served as a way for the faithful to understand the fate of unbaptized souls. Not having been washed of the guilt of original sin, the argument went, they could not enter heaven, but innocent of personal sin, nor did they deserve hell. In the “Divine Comedy,” Dante fashioned an unforgettable impression of limbo. When he enters, the poet exclaims: “No laments could we hear — except for sighs that trembled the timeless air.”

And Virgil — Dante’s mentor who is also excluded from heaven — replies: “They did not sin; If they have merit, it can’t suffice without baptism, portal to the faith you maintain” (Inferno IV, 20-25). These beautiful words, tinged with sadness and regret, remind the faithful of the beauty and importance of baptism, as well as our responsibility as being marked among the elect. Questioning the existence of limbo does not cancel the teaching that salvation ordinarily comes to us through the sacraments.

But in our modern age, give an inch and the rest will go with it. A wonderful family of pilgrims told me that their parish bulletin in Atlanta had declared that purgatory no longer existed. The logical follow-up is that hell, too, will soon be consigned to the dustbin of theology.

This series of misunderstandings, however, underscores the importance of pilgrimage. Here in Rome, we are still given penances to pray for the souls in purgatory. One can visit the Purgatory Museum and a plenary indulgence for the living or dead can be obtained at any of the major basilicas.

Coming to Rome, the home of the Church, walking in the footsteps of hundreds of great saints that passed through these streets, one revitalizes one’s faith, and finds answers to questions and doubts.

* * *

Masterpieces of Devotion

Last Friday, those who had to forgo the beach and stay in the city were given a delightful treat. The former Palazzo Montoro, now the Argentine Embassy, threw open its doors for three days allowing all passers-by to visit the “piano nobile,” or reception hall, of the 17th-century palace. Up the main stair, past a tiny chapel tucked into a corner of the first floor, curious visitors entered the grand hall, where three stunning paintings by the Baroque painter Guercino were on display — a large image of a penitent St. Jerome, flanked by a sorrowful Virgin and a little oil-on-copper painting of St. Francis.

This initiative is the second of a series of three special openings that will take place over the next month. The last will be on June 22, 23 and 24, when visitors will be able to visit Guercino and Guido Reni at the Palazzo Colonna in Piazza SS. Apostoli.

People filtered in and out, studying the three works in silence, many transfixed by the small panel of the Blessed Virgin, her eyes red-rimmed as large tears flow from her eyes. Guercino focused solely on her face, and the Bolognese artist’s handling of the oil paint produced such a realistic rendering of the grieving Madonna, that it transmitted solemnity to the visitors in the room.

Opposite the painting of Mary, the small St. Francis painting shimmered due to the copper backing, a technique imported from Northern Europe in the late 16th century and employed in small devotional paintings for personal use. These beautiful little objects, precious for their fine detail, rendering of color and shiny surfaces, were treasured by the nobility of Rome like an investment-level holy card.

But the central canvas was the star of the show. St. Jerome, nude except for a red drape billowing around his body, occupies the whole space of the painting and threatens to enter ours as well. His legs are bent in a tour de force of foreshortening, his toes seeming to brush the edge of the picture plane. As St. Jerome affixes a seal to a document, his sinewy arm bends high over his head in a display of outstanding draftsmanship.

The brilliant lapis lazuli of the sky behind him, as well as the complexity of the positioning, leave no doubt that this was a very fine work of art, by one of the Baroque era’s greatest masters.

The St. Jerome of Palazzo Montoro resides across the street from San Luigi dei Francesi, where Caravaggio’s “Stories of St. Matthew” can still be seen today. Next door is the Palazzo Giustiniani, home of the great patrons of Caravaggio, and the Palazzo Madama, where the Lombard painter lived in the house of Cardinal del Monte.

The thought of how many masterpieces were painted and displayed in that single corner of Rome gives one pause. But these patrons, cardinals and wealthy laypeople alike, commissioned works that not only delighted the eye, but also inspired the spirit. Guercino’s St. Jerome, with his emaciated body of the penitent, stirred its owners to ponder how they would spend their final days.

The sorrowful Virgin cast a sobering light on their rounds of entertainments by recalling Christ’s sacrifice, while the ecstatic St. Francis presents an example of having renounced everything to follow Christ, rejoicing in the abandonment of material wealth.

These glimpses into the intimate world of private devotional art offer a moment of reflection on how the privileged of 17th-century Rome pursued the pleasures of collecting art, but also maintained a strong spiritual heading.

The modern age, with its Jeff Koons and Jenny Holtzers as the paradigm of artistic genius, strikes an unfortunate comparison with a world where collectors searched not for titillation, but rather inspiration, in art.


  1. emma

    ‘Questioning the existence of limbo does not cancel the teaching that salvation ordinarily comes to us through the sacraments.’

    salvation does not come through the sacraments – salvation comes through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins (both original and personal sin)

    John 14:6 Jesus said,”I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except THROUGH ME”

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