The church of bones and lost souls

In the old streets of Naples, there’s a small church of bones, mystery and cult worship – an offshoot of the Neapolitan Cult of the Dead.

Purgatory, a Catholic doctrine that is often misunderstood, is a state where souls are purified of their sins so they can enter Heaven. The living can expedite this process with prayers for the souls, to free them of their sins and release them from the limbo of purgatory.

Atmospheric cross and altar in church

Altar and cross in the lower church, St Mary of the Purgatory’s Souls

Neapolitans have a relationship with death and the dead that has been shaped by religion and the disasters of plague, famines and volcanic eruptions. Vesuvius, the city’s neighbouring volcano, is an enigmatic presence, a brooding reminder and menacing warning for the city. In 1656 the Black Death hit Naples, killing half the city’s population. Thousands of poor abandoned souls (le anime pezzentelle) who died in these catastrophes were buried without recording and without a send-off, in crypts, caves or pits. The spirits are here in the city, suffering in purgatory, their only hope is for a living person to pray for them.

The Neapolitan Skull Cult, centred on the Fontanelle cemetery and ossuary, was especially popular with elderly women, widows and those with little family. They received messages from the spirits via dreams, and then adopted whichever skull or capuzzelle they believed belonged to the spirit. The skulls were cleaned with alcohol and cleaner (refrisco)and cared for; some were placed in marble shrines or boxes. The devotees claimed they knew the true names of the skulls and, in exchange for their prayers to help them through purgatory, would ask for favours when they reached heaven by talking to them or writing messages on small pieces of paper that were then inserted into the eye sockets of the skulls.

Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco (Saint Mary of the Souls of Purgatory) is a church in central Naples. It dates back to 1638 and was linked to the Congrega di Purgatorio ad Arco, a group founded by Neapolitan nobles and dedicated to burying the poor and praying for their souls in purgatory.

The upper church is standard Neapolitan baroque – beautiful, light and airy. It’s only when you descend into the lower church that there’s a dramatic shift in atmosphere. Now you’re in a dark subterranean chamber. Italian baroque gives way to austere classicism, the clutter of pews is now an empty space, light turns to mystery and gloom, oil paintings are now skulls and shrines.

Shrine of skulls, pictures, offerings and statues

The skull of Princess Lucia in the Holy Land of the Purgatory Hypogeum (Church website)

An imposing cross hangs over the altar. In the centre, four lights and a chain decorated with skulls mark a mass grave of anonymous remains. On the left of the altar is a narrow corridor, where the atmosphere becomes more mysterious, more claustrophobic, more musty. In the corridor is the tomb of the Count Giulio Mastrillo and his wife, an important benefactor of the church. The corridor leads to a large low-lit room with tatty walls and skulls and bones carefully laid over earth burials. This is the Holy Land of the Purgatory Hypogeum (a hypogeum is an underground crypt). Niches and shrines with skulls overflow with offerings, plastic flowers, messages and transport tickets for the souls to travel through Purgatory. Rosary beads and crosses are hung over statues and angels, or fading pictures of loved ones. Through a hole in the floor, we can look down into an even deeper level below us, a charnel house messy with bones and wooden boxes. Is this for real? It looks like a drawing from a Victorian tabloid describing the living, dancing on the dead of Enon Chapel. Scenes like this are rare in Britain, where death has been tidied up and banished from polite society.

The Bridal Skull

Skull sits on an embroidered pillow, crowned with a bridal veil and tiara

The Bridal Skull of Princess Lucia (Church website)

In a small shrine a skull sits on an embroidered pillow, crowned with a bridal veil and tiara. It’s regarded as the skull of Princess Lucia, a virgin bride. In the 18th century the daughter of a local nobleman, the Prince of Ruffano, died of tuberculosis just after her wedding. The Prince, devoted to the souls of purgatory, buried Princess Lucy in the church. But there is no record of this in the burial archives, so a skull became the legend. She is the patron of young brides, a noblewoman who died of a broken heart because her father prevented her marrying a poor man, or a woman who died for the lack of love. Whatever the version of the tale, she and her skull become a mediator of prayers and offerings, a source of marital help.

The decline of the cult

Defenders of the cult argued that they were paying respect to those who had had none in life, who had been too poor to have a proper burial. There is something poignant, and harmless, in someone seeking and finding comfort both for themselves and for the poor souls of purgatory. It’s about our desires for love, connection and spiritual yearning.

The Church opposed this kind of worship on the grounds that only saints can communicate with God to obtain an intervention or a miracle, not the souls and skulls of unknown paupers. You can see it from their point of view, where the business model loses control to something too superstitious, too pagan, too weird even for a religion that tells the faithful they are eating the blood and body of the son of God.

In 1969, the Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Corrado Ursi, banned the cult but it still echoes on today.

Further information

The church made it clear that photography was not allowed in the Holy Land so, in respect, we only took photos where we were allowed and the above photos are from their website.

5 curious, religious and macabre things to do with a human skull

Death in Naples: on dreams and the dead

14 thoughts on “The church of bones and lost souls

    • Yes I read about the annual miracle and I think it still happens. The Veiled Christ was one of the most beautiful pieces of marble sculpture I’ve ever seen. Am keen to return to Naples as I thought it was a fascinating city. Thanks for the kind comments!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Totally – which is why the status quo tries to shut them down. The relationship between established ‘official’ religions and local animism, folklore or paganism is always uneasy and fascinating.


  1. Interesting! I always think that places like these are creepy, but they become more fascinating when I hear the intriguing and sad stories of those who passed away. Now, I can’t shake the tale of Princess Lucia off my head. Was she already buried in that way from the start?

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you hear the stories I think you hear the human voices, and that dispels our fear. They can be creepy but then you think why…it’s more about me than the place. I don’t how much truth is in the story of Lucia – there seem to be various variations and maybe it was invented because people needed it to be! It’s a sad story adopted by people to help with sadness in their life. Thanks for dropping by!

      Liked by 1 person

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