Museum of Purgatory

November 26, 2011 — Gazing at the charred handprints of limbo’d souls just a few inches from my face made me realize that I must’ve just skimmed the middle book of Dante’s Divine Comedy. All this time I thought Purgatory was like a bar full of 45-year-old men…a place you didn’t really want to be, but whiskey sours are whiskey sours and there are much worse alternatives. In this case, that worse alternative is a permanent vacation by a lake of fire.

However, turns out, there’s blazing torment in Purgatory, too. Which means that instead of having a 66.6% chance of escaping the flames of afterlife judgment that I thought I had, I actually have a 66.6% chance of being fed to them. Crap.

That terrifying realization happened to me at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Sufferance, a century-old place of worship in Rome with some odd artifacts on display within its holy interior.

The sizeable, ornate church is located right on the Tiber River at 12 Lungotevere Prati, close enough to that famous waterway, in fact, that you have to cross a nearby bridge to actually get a good view of the complete façade of the church.

Of course, in Rome, it takes more than mere exquisite architecture to bring in the masses for the masses. Dizzyingly beautiful churches are a euro a dozzina over there, so you have to compensate with other attention-getters. For instance, I’ve written before about the church that proudly displays the Mouth of Truth and the skull of St. Valentine, as well as the church that famously harbors the Capuchin Crypt in its basement.

Well, what the Church of the Sacred Heart puts in its glossy brochures is the Piccolo Museo Del Purgatorio. Translated variously as the Museum of Purgatory, the Little Museum of Purgatory, the Museum of the Souls of Purgatory, the Museum of the Holy Souls of Purgatory, and That Crazy Place with the Burning Handprints of the Dead, the museum is a small collection of items singed by the fiery flesh of those trapped in a post-life place of torment but with the hope of one day being freed from such.

Apparently, the soul’s sojourn of suffering in Purgatory is meant to be a temporary one, where they await while the violent fires of purification bake them to the medium-well that God prefers his souls served. However, the soul’s time microwaved on high can be sped up by having people back home on Earth offer prayers and supplications for them. It’s the same theological principle, I think, behind praying for your favorite sports team to win.

Every once in a while, a soul is allowed to field trip back to the material plane to admonish friends, relatives, and clergy something along the lines of, “Hey, things suck a bit for me right now. I missed Heaven by a few rungs, and Purgatory is not a bar full of 45-year-old men. Please pray me the heck out of here.” The tortured soul would then touch a nearby object, searing its handprint blackly into that object to substantiate that they were indeed more grave than gravy.

About a hundred years ago, a priest named Victor Jouet starting tracking down and collecting these items, which should be anybody’s first response to hearing about such a phenomenon. There seem to be a few elaborations of his story online, but I can’t verify any of them. So I’m just sticking with, “He collected them because they were pretty cool, and they’re still on display today because they’re pretty cool.”

Inside, we found the Church of the Sacred Heart to be elegant, but murky. It was dimly lit, the interior almost completely bedecked with dark polished wood, and strange shadows flickered obscurely on the wall from choir rows of prayer candles, many of which were offered, I assume, to help souls in Purgatory. It was also empty, and as we walked into the church, it became immediately apparent that it was not immediately apparent where the museum was.

I wandered to the back right corner of the auditorium proper and into some plain-looking annex rooms, where I came upon a middle-aged woman with dark hair and the air of one who was completely at ease in a building full of proof of a painful afterlife. She was talking to an older gentleman in Italian, and it took only one American-accented “Scusi” for her to realize exactly what I was there for…not worshipping God. She sighed, walked over to a light switch, flicked it, and pointed at a hallway.

Turns out that hallway didn’t lead to the museum, but actually held the museum, which was barely more than a solitary exhibit of about 20 framed objects and pictures set on pegboard in a single wall-mounted glass case.

Looking closely at these objects, I was disappointed to see that many of them were mere photos of artifacts, where they weren’t copies of photos of artifacts. Creepy photos certainly, but mere photos and copies nevertheless.

But there were some physical items. For instance, a section of wooden table branded with a cross and a cartoonish hand. Some clothing with vaguely digit-like holes in it. Various books with blackened pages. They seemed more spooky than sacred, honestly. That’s a compliment.

Unfortunately, and speaking of the sacred, this physical proof of the existence of an afterlife was hardly compelling. Just more faces of Jesus on toast. They were nevertheless interesting…less for being what they are claimed to be, of course, but more for the fact that for a hundred years or more, this is what they’ve been claimed to be. I call that feeling “awe and guffaw.” I have big plans for that phrase, actually.

A stack of handouts on a nearby table bore a multi-lingual summary of some of the artifacts, detailing the scenarios, witnesses, and even the identities of the Purgatorial escapee. The stories behind the artifacts and pictures often pleasantly read like the ghost stories that they are. Here are some of them reproduced directly from the paper.

Obviously, because of its small size, we were only at the Museum of Purgatory a few minutes, and only that long out of politeness to the woman who had showed me where it was. I honestly think I lingered longer on the Wikipedia entry for the little museum.

Still, I did take a valuable lesson out of this visit. I definitely need to update my will with a “Pray me out of Purgatory” clause. There’s got to be some boilerplate text for that online, somewhere.