Today To Me, Tomorrow To You: Journey in Purgatory Between Rome and Terracina

Today’s journey begins during one of the many days of walking around Rome. There’s an unbearable mugginess and stroll along Via Giulia, the street full of restaurants and beautiful houses a short walk from Campo dei Fiori, one of the most famous areas of Rome.

The Church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in Via Giulia (Campo dei Fiori) in Rome (Credits: civesromanussum.blogspot.com).

My distracted eyes are suddenly captured by the external decoration of a church now closed for restoration. A winged skeleton and then a Latin text that sounds more or less like this in English: “today to me, tomorrow to you”.

Detail of the external decoration of the entrance of the Church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in Rome. Hodie Mihi, Cras Tibi: “today to me, tomorrow to you” (Credits: dorli.it)

The gears of my brain are starting to turn. The neurons decide to win the heat and trace a match in my mental archive! That Church – which I then discover to be the Church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte – finds a twin sister in the Church of Purgatory of Terracina, the city in the province of Latina a few kilometres from Rome, where those who have been following me for a while now know that I was born.

The Church of Purgatory of Terracina (Credits: latinacorriere.it)

For the Poor Dead…

There was a time when plagues, rare diseases and banditry broke many lives. Very often people died on their way or far from home and the corpses lay abandoned on the streets and in the countryside, without burial, prey to animals and jackals. Poverty or the lack of closeness of loved ones prevented a dignified burial in the cemetery, a necessary condition to ensure eternal rest. And so, in the year of the Lord 1538 some devout Christians, moved by zeal for charity and piety, instituted in Rome a company under the title of Death.

This company was officially recognized in 1552 by Pope Julius III who gave it the name “Archconfraternity of Prayer and Death”. From that moment on, its members committed themselves day and night, with the cold and the heat, to the recovery of the insepolated corpses, to their burial and to praying in suffrage of their souls.

 

The coat of arms of the Brotherhood (Credits: isantesi.wordpress.com).

 

The Church of Purgatory of Terracina

1) External

Also in Terracina, the “brothers of Death” were active and gathered in a confraternity that was headed by that of the Oration and Death of Via Giulia in Rome. The confreres of Terracina first met in the Church of San Giovanni and then, from the second half of the eighteenth century, in the present Church of Purgatory.

Built on the remains of the medieval church of San Nicola (13th century), around which the religious and spiritual life of the inhabitants of the Borgo di Cipollata revolved, the Church of Purgatory is the only example of late Baroque architecture in the city.

 

It was built between the middle of the 18th century and 1787 and with its overbearing staircase it imposes itself on Corso Anita Garibaldi, the modern road which, following the ancient Via Appia, is the backbone of the high historical centre.

The Church of Purgatory in Terracina inside the Borgo di Cipollata. Photography taken from the late antique walls of the city (Credits: keebboo.com).

 

 

Its imposing façade is marked by pilasters supporting a mixed tympanum at the centre of which the Death stands alone. It is depicted as a skeleton holding an hourglass in one hand, symbolizing the inexorable flow of time, and on the other a sickle to which is tied a kind of banner containing an identical admonition to that of the Church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in Rome: “Today to me, tomorrow to you”. At the foot of the skeleton, some bones and then the papal tiara and the episcopal miter. Rich or poor, young or old, popes or bishops, clergy or ordinary people, in front of the Death we are all equal. The moment of the passage sooner or later comes for everyone. Two angels, strongly deteriorated, find themselves at the edge of the tympanum and play the trumpets of the Judgement.

 

Detail of the façade gable decoration of the Church of Purgatory in Terracina (Credits: flicker.com).

 

Remaining outside, characteristic is the churchyard, the small space in front of the church. The Purgatory is the only church in the city to be provided with it.

At the back of the church, there is a plan with some windows that refer to the sacristy. The roof of the church is dome-shaped. The bell tower, similar to that of the Church of San Giovanni, is probably datable to the thirteenth century, while the small and characteristic roof would seem chronologically more recent.

 

2) Internal

From the size of the facade, we would expect a large church. Instead, once you enter, you feel completely disorientated. The small church is the only worship building with a central plan of Terracina.

The majolica floor has a characteristic decoration in the central band that directs the eye towards the main altar, under which is the statue of Christ Lying. Laterally we find two other small altars. Both were to be decorated with two altarpieces, one destroyed by fire and the other stolen.

 

 Interior of the Church of Purgatory of Terracina. The central altar. Below the altar is the Statue of the Dead Christ. On the right, there is the Statue of Our Lady of Consolation (Credits: mapio.net).

Under the feet of the faithful, a huge funerary monument welcomed the remains of the poor who had died, recovered from them by their confreres. Two trapdoors, on the left and right, as soon as you crossed the entrance of the church, allowed you to control the situation of the underlying mass grave.

The interior decoration of the walls, of the dome, and even of the confessional, is all centred on the theme of death: fresco paintings, stuccowork and reliefs depict skeletons, skulls and symbols of death that, illuminated by the light of the candles, had to transport the faithful into a particular atmosphere.

Detail of the interior decoration of the Church of Purgatory of Terracina (Credits: Venceslao Grossi).

 

The confessional of the Church of Purgatory with the decoration of a skull (Credits: tripadvisor.it).

At the inner base of the dome, an inscription, interspersed with eight skulls with bones crossed with “ics”, says: “Holy and right is the thought for the dead”. The inscription clarifies the mission of the church, the place where, even today, we go to pray for the souls of the dead.

The inner surface of the dome is painted with remarkable skill. The perspective piercing allows a characteristic glance that reaches up to the lantern, also completely painted. The dominant colors are blue and gold.

Interior of the dome of the Church of Purgatory di Terracina (Credits: inspirock.com; photo by Anna Marchese).

It is not the triumph of the macabre, but the celebration of the mystery of life and death, the manifestation of the greatness, piety and charity of the confreres of “Good Death”.

 

The Purgatory today

Purgatory, contrary to what many popular voices say, is a consecrated church and it is possible to go there to pray for the souls of the dead. The worship building refers to the Cathedral of Terracina and is open every day, both in the morning and in the afternoon. Guardians are some ladies resident in the village of Cipollata. It is not a daily workshop, but only on certain special occasions.

On Good Friday the statue of Christ, placed under the high altar, is carried in procession through the streets of the city along with that of the Madonna Consolatrice. This procession, as it still happens today, starts from the church of Purgatorio on the evening. The procession is accompanied by the city band playing funeral marches while walking by candlelight. In the past, then, the confreres of Death wore a white habit and wore a hood on their heads. Tradition has it that the coffin was accompanied by pious screaming women, while crowds of boys beat chains on the pavement and shaken the “traps”, three jointed wooden boards that, once shaken, slammed together. The deafening noise accompanying the procession symbolised the primordial chaos into which the Universe had plunged after Jesus’ death.

The Church of Purgatory, then, is also at the center of the commemoration of November 2, the day on which the Latin Church celebrates all the faithful deceased. After a small celebration, a procession leaves from Purgatory to arrive at the Terracina cemetery.

In addition to being a building of Christian worship, the Purgatory has been transformed, on some recent occasions, into a real stage, hosting, within it, musical concerts of Italian and foreign artists. Its conservation conditions, like those of other small churches in the city, are unfortunately very critical. Water infiltration, and neglect have led to a gradual deterioration of paintings, stuccoes and decorations.

This small speech of mine is only intended to draw the attention of my fellow citizens and not to a monument which, in my humble opinion, is a real treasure to be discovered and admired.

Some faithful in front of the Purgatory Church of Terracina (Credits: Tripadvisor.it).

 

Posted by Sara Pandozzi

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