Souls of Purgatory

Las Ánimas del Purgatorio

Feast day: All Souls day is celebrated on November 2.

Patron Saints: Our Lord of Mercy, as well as the thirteenth-century saints Augustinian priest Nicholas of Tolentino and the Benedictine nun St. Gertrude, the Great are invoked to pray for the Souls lost in purgatory.

Invoked by those who have lost loved ones.

Essay by Alex Nipper

Life and death are essential subjects in Hispanic retablo art, but equally important is what happens after death. In many religious arts there is always a clear distinction between heaven and hell, especially in retablo art. However, the time that exists between these two realms is known as the representation of the Souls lost in Purgatory. These Souls suffer in waiting to be judged by God, so that they may be allowed into heaven. The families of these Souls hold a vigil and pray to the various patron saints to expedite the process of awaiting God’s judgement, so that the suffering of loved ones will end.

The visual representations of these lost Souls vary in composition. Some retablos feature Souls of two or more individuals, poor or wealthy but religious. All these Souls can be seen waiting in a cloud of smoke and brim, surrounding by the flames in the underworld. In the more specific depictions of the Souls in Purgatory, there are two men and one woman awaiting their fates (fig. 1). In these scenes, the Souls are surrounded by fire, typically looking upward towards the sky with shackled hands in a prayer gesture, asking God for His forgiveness. The depiction of Jesus on the cross above the Souls is a reminder to the lost Souls that will be suffering for their sins for having not follow the sacraments, therefore, paying for their transgressions. Our Lord of Mercy is seen in the upper half of the composition surrounded by light and soft clouds as a kind and merciful Lord, promising the Souls that they can also be surrounded by clouds instead of hellish flames.

Jesus is not always featured in the painting (fig. 2). In this retablo, the crucified image of Jesus is replaced the monstrance or ostensorium representing the Eucharistic host—Blessed Sacrament—surrounded by illuminated clouds. Below the clouds are a couple, with the male’s wrists bound together by chains while the female Souls’ hands are free. The female soul has a necklace or pendent known as a ‘scapular,’ given to the Souls by Our Lady of Mount Caramel and the Carmelite Order. The scapular is a sign of peace, the dead wear these so that the Soul will not suffer from the flames while awaiting the Judgment Day in purgatory. The hands form the gesture of prayer, as well as the eyes looking up to the Eucharistic golden vessel, signifying that the individuals are looking up for forgiveness to God and for their Final Judgment to come.

Figure 1. Lord of Mercy with Souls in Purgatory /

El Señor de la Misericordia con las Ánimas del Purgatorio.

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 17″x 9½”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1967.1.34.

Donor: Dr. Ezra K. Neidich.

Figure 2. The Souls in Purgatory / Las Ánimas del Purgatorio.

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 10″x 6”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1967.1.119.

Donor: Dr. Ezra K. Neidich.


Hall, James, Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publisher, 1974.

Steele, Thomas J. Santos and Saints: The Religious Folk Art of Hispanic New Mexico. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press. 1994.

Zarur, Elizabeth Netto Calil, and Charles Muir Lovell, eds. Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.