I’m not sure what I’m looking at.
A rectangular slab of wood bears two burn marks–one in the shape of a cross, the other resembles a human hand. Nearby are other items–a shirt, a prayer book, a pillow–all with burns that look like they’ve been made by fiery fingers.
I’m in Rome’s smallest and strangest museum, the Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio, the Little Museum of Purgatory. Housed in the church of Santo Cuore del Suffragio, which is dedicated to relieving the souls tortured in Purgatory, it stands barely ten minutes’ walk from the Vatican. Small it certainly is, just one long case along a single wall, but the questions it raises are at the center of an increasingly acrimonious debate that’s dividing Western civilization.
Purgatory is a halfway point between Heaven and Hell, a place for the souls of people who lived good enough lives to avoid eternal damnation, but not quite good enough to join the angels. In Purgatory these souls suffer torment for enough time for their sins to be forgiven, a sort of celestial spanking with no Child Protective Services to intervene.
But there is hope. Prayers by the living can reduce a soul’s time in Purgatory. Faithful relatives offer up prayers or even pay for entire masses to be said for the departed. Others neglect this spiritual duty, and it is said that sometimes a tormented soul will return to Earth and ask for help.
During the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries these visitations happened fairly often and took on a common pattern. A spirit would appear to a relative or friend, reveal it was in torment, and ask for prayers to shorten its time in the cleansing fires. As proof that the spirit had been there, it would touch its burning hand to a nearby object. These events were one of many types of miracles common in the Catholic world such as apparitions of the Virgin Mary and bleeding statues of Jesus.
The Purgatory Museum collects these soul burns and tells their story. The hand and cross that I am seeing was left on a table by Fr. Panzini, former Abbot Olivetano of Mantua. In 1731 he appeared to Venerable Mother Isabella Fornari, abbess of the Poor Clares of the Monastery of St. Francis in Todi. He appeared to her on November 1, 1731 (All Saints Day) and said he was suffering in Purgatory. To prove his claim, he touched his flaming hand to her table and etched a burning cross in it too. He also touched her sleeve and left scorches and bloodstains.
%Gallery-101999%I have to admit I’m skeptical. I am an agnostic, and while I can’t disprove the existence of some sort of deity, I’m having trouble believing this story. The hand doesn’t look quite right. I take several photos, including the negative black and white image shown here. On this image details become clear that aren’t easily spotted with the naked eye. The burnt hand and cross are made up of a series of circular patterns as if they were made with some sort of hot poker. Other objects, whose images and stories can be seen in the attached gallery, appear more convincing but could still easily have been made with a bit of flame and ingenuity.
This doesn’t dissuade the two guys I’m seeing the museum with. They are a devoutly Catholic gay couple here in Rome on pilgrimage, something I find far more mysterious than a few burns on a nightcap. They go from object to object with wonder in their eyes. Looking at that same hand they don’t see its shape as odd, and they don’t see the circular patterns that make it up as a sign of forgery. A burning hand, of course, would have flames coming out of it, which would distort its shape and lead to some areas of the imprint being more scorched than others.
And that, I realize, is what the Purgatory Museum has to teach. For the faithful, it is yet more proof of Divine Judgment. For an atheist, it is proof of the gullibility of religious people and the nasty web of lies that supports organized religion. For the agnostic standing between two fundamentalisms, it proves nothing. Personally I think these objects are the products of overzealous fraudsters wanting to make converts by any means necessary, yet debunking them doesn’t disprove the existence of spirits any more than showing there’s no life on Mars would disprove the possibility of aliens on other planets.
As I stand there wondering where the whole debate over religion is going to lead, an attractive young American nun walks in, hands me a pendant of the Virgin Mary, and hurries off before I can ask her what the Latin inscription says. This sort of thing happens a lot in Rome. The inscription reads, “O MARIA CONCEPITA SENZA PECCATO PREGATE PER NOI CHE RECORRIAMO A VOI” and bears the date 1850. Translation, anyone?
So I leave the same as I entered, “knowing” nothing but insatiably curious about everything. That’s a pretty good place to be, I think. Walking down the nave I see one of the gay Catholics gazing upon a reclining figure of the crucified Jesus. His face is transfixed with reverence, wonder, and sadness as he bends down and kisses the statue’s feet. His visit to Rome will be very different than mine.
This starts a new series called Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side. I will be looking at the Eternal City’s obsession with death, from grandiose tombs to saints’ relics, from early Christian catacombs to mummified monks. Tune in tomorrow for The Tombs of Rome!