The Representation of Purgatory in a Colonial Painting from Latin America

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Vásquez, Rafael Alas
The representation of purgatory in painting was very popular after the Council of Trent. While Protestant denied the existence of purgatory, the Catholic Church, with the help of religious orders and brotherhoods, fostered the devotion to the suffering souls. During the colonial period in Latin America, this devotion gained a unique importance. This fact is reflected in the numerous paintings representing purgatory that are displayed in cathedrals and churches. The purpose of this thesis is to study the iconography of one of these paintings representing purgatory. The chosen painting presents different figures of souls among the flames. The Virgin del Carmen is represented holding one soul, while the figures of St. Peter and St. Michael are looking toward heaven. A Crucifix and the Holy Ghost appear above the figure of the Virgin. The representation in purgatory of a bishop, a nun and a Black man, besides the depiction of souls at different ages show the Catholic belief that every sinner has to pass through purgatory. Two unusual motifs are the depiction of st. Peter in purgatory and the representation of the Virgin pulling a soul from the flames. The painting reflects the concept of purgatory that the Catholic Church spread after the Council of Trent. The effectiveness of masses to help the souls, symbolized by the depiction of Christ on the Cross, and the intervention of Mary to release souls from purgatory are two important messages that this painting is presenting to the worshiper.