Wednesday 8 November 2017

The Loss of Purgatory

In the course of my researches, I'm reading a short book by one Nigel Llewellyn called The Art of Death (an illustrated V&A publication). It's somewhat marred by academic jargon but full of interest and food for thought – including a particular insight that struck me as valid, even obvious, but which had never occurred to me, perhaps because of my Protestant cast of mind.
 Llewellyn points up the dramatic impact that the loss of the idea of Purgatory, in the wake of the Reformation, must have had on people's feelings about death. Without the consoling notion of Purgatory, the dead were abruptly and totally cut off from the living, and with no post-mortem chance for their souls to be saved before the Day of Judgment came. The loss of loved ones must now have seemed total and potentially devastating, in a way it was not before. The ending of Purgatory, writes Llewellyn, 'caused grievous psychological damage: from that point forward the living were, in effect, distanced from the dead'.
 One result, Llewellyn argues, was the development of 'the theory of memoria, which stressed the didactic potential of the lives and deaths of the virtuous'. But also, on a broader view, the loss of Purgatory must surely have played a part in a remarkable historical phenomenon: the development, in the course of the 17th century, of  enhanced 'affective relations' between family members – feelings, especially in relation to children, that seem recognisably close to our own and were not apparent before. For evidence of this shift, you have only to compare the treatment of children on typical funeral monuments of the Tudor period - purely generic figures ranked by age, sex and status (alive or dead) - with the highly expressive, naturalistic rendering of children, mourning or mourned, on the best monuments of the early 17th century. The adult dead too move from being stock figures to something more like individualised portraits, and a sense of genuine personal grief imbues these memorials. Clearly something happened around the turn of the 17th century – a complex something that is hard to disentangle, but it now seems to me obvious that the loss of the consolations of Purgatory must have played a significant part in it.


  1. Presumably those who precipitated the Reformation, such as Luther, deemed the idea of Purgatory unnecessary in a sense. Perhaps, taking a lead from the dictum 'The Kingdom of Heaven is within you' the idea of the whole process of Inferno-Purgatorio - Paradiso became telescoped within the span of a human life? It would be interesting to know for how long the idea of literal physical Resurrection and Heaven as an after-life location survived the Reformation too.

  2. Deep waters, Guy... I think Protestant objections to Purgatory were largely due to the lucrative trade in selling indulgences (and the lack of scriptural support). The idea of physical resurrection certainly had (has?) a long afterlife - there are remarkable 'resurrection' monuments from the 17th century and on into Victorian times. Not to mention Stanley Spencer...

  3. So I wonder if Purgatory 'mattered' to Luther for itself quite apart form the abuse of the idea contained in indulgences. This site had some interesting stuff and summarised thus: "When Luther wrote his 95 Theses in 1517, he firmly believed in purgatory. By 1521, he wrote that belief in purgatory was a matter of personal choice, but said that he personally continued to believe in purgatory. Beginning in 1522, he began to express doubts in the doctrine and removed a prayer for souls in purgatory from his prayer book in 1524. In 1528, Luther explicitly rejected the idea of purgatory for the first time, a position he apparently held until his death." Seems he went through a period of transition.