THE 16TH AND 17TH CENTURIES marked a period of tremendous religious thinking in Europe. The Protestant Reformation was sweeping across the continent, and the Catholic Counter-Reformation in response. Among the contested ideas was the notion of purgatory, thought to be a “place of cleansing” for those who have sinned and not yet received full forgiveness for their acts.
After Protestant pushback on this concept, Catholics reiterated the importance of the doctrine. A concrete result of this reaffirmation was the construction of several “purgatory” churches around southern Italy and Sicily, where mass was celebrated to pray for the souls of those in limbo, so they could go on to heaven.
One of these purgatory churches is the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Suffragio, also known as La Chiesa del Purgatorio, located in the small town of Monopoli right beside the much grander Basilica of the Madonna della Madia. Built toward the end of the 17th century, the unassuming structure might lack the majesty of the cathedral next door, but it is eye-catching nevertheless, thanks to the macabre images on the doorway and the mummies on display inside.
The central figures in the heavy wooden door are two skeletons, mirror images of each other, holding what looks like a mat. The engraved borders surrounding the doorway are patterned with skulls, incongruously intertwined with more traditional flowers and branches. The symbolism of death that greets visitors at every turn is thought to be a warning of the suffering and pain of purgatory awaiting those who sin without repentance.
In keeping with the theme, inside the church are the embalmed remains of eight founding members of the church and local administrators, standing in a glass case, dressed in black robes bordered by the red fiery flames of purgatory. The mummies date back to the 18th and 19th century, and one of the cases also contains the mummy of a child, wearing a frilly white frock. The church’s interiors are in the Baroque-style, and the altar is ornate and intricately decorated.