The Fontanelle cemetery caves may be the more famous, and larger, burial place of Naples’ unnamed and unfortunate dead, but Santa Maria della Anime ad Arco (Saint Mary of the Souls of Purgatory) is more intimate and atmospheric. And despite the increasing tourists, the Neapolitan Cult of the Dead still has adherents in this tiny church.
The church dates back to 1638, around the time that the Congrega di Purgatorio ad Arco was formed, a group dedicated to burying the poor and unfortunate for whom there was no room in the city’s overcrowded churches—a situation that worsened incredibly after the Black Death hit Naples in 1656, killing half the city’s population, some 150,000 people.
Along with Fontanelle, the church’s hypogeum, or underground crypt, was filled with the remains of these poor souls. As they often weren’t given a proper Catholic burial or grave marker, it was assumed they would languish in purgatory before their souls continued on to heaven. It was believed per Catholic doctrine that the living could help the souls on their way by praying for them. This gave rise to the “Neapolitan Skull Cult.”
Visitors cared for the skulls, adopting certain skulls and bringing gifts in exchange for special favors from the dead, who, it was believed, were closer to God than the living and thus endowed to a certain extent with saintly powers. Certain skulls believed to be extra powerful developed followings, the most famous being “Princess Lucia” a.k.a the “Virgin Bride.” Her skull has become a beacon for women searching for marital help, and is often found adorned with a tiara or veil.
Practitioners believe it is a legitimate form of Catholic worship, but in 1969 the Cardinal of Naples decided to suppress the practice, determining it a superstitious heresy relying too much on ancient folklore and myth. To curtail the Cult Of the Dead, many sites have been open to tourism in hopes that admission fees, tourists, and security cameras will deter believers. As of yet, it has not.