The church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco in Naples, Italy was built in 1616 by noblemen who founded the Congrega di Purgatorio ad Arco, an organization to help the poor. At the gate there are two bronze skulls and crossbones, inside are paintings of the Madonna of the Souls in Purgatory, winged skulls, and scenes depicting the deaths of saints. In the hypogeum, or underground crypt, there are graves and wooden boxes containing human remains. This is where the Congrega di Purgatorio ad Arco buried the poor and said prayers for the souls in Purgatory.
According to the Catholic Church, Purgatory is a place for souls who have not been completely freed of sin. Though the living can get immediate forgiveness for their sins, complete redemption happens over time. If someone dies before that process is complete then the soul needs to be purified in Purgatory so that they are holy enough to enter Heaven. But the living can expedite the time needed for purification with masses and prayers for these souls caught in limbo.
In Europe, the Catholic idea of Purgatory evolved into an unofficial cult of the dead that had a particularly strong following in Naples. These worshippers believed if the living said masses and prayers on behalf of the souls in Purgatory, the benevolent dead were endowed with some of the power of the saints and could intervene on their behalf when they reached heaven.
The cult of the dead also thought that the skulls of unknown or abandoned bodies required a living patron to help them through limbo with prayers and offerings. Worshippers would often adopt a skull and care for it in special niches, and skulls thought to belong to exceptionally powerful souls had their own following. At the crypt in Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco there is a skull nicknamed Lucia or the “Virgin Bride.” Lucia has become sort of a patron saint of brides, and her patrons have set her skull on a white cushion and adorned it with a tiara and a veil.
There are a couple of stories about who Lucia was. Some believe that Lucia died of a broken heart when her father refused to let her marry the man she loved, and the veil she was never allowed to wear in life covers her skull in death. In another version of this legend Lucia was the only daughter of a nobleman. When she died of tuberculosis in 1789, right after her wedding to the Marquess Giacomo Santomango, her father buried her in the cemetery at Purgatorio ad Arco because he was a patron of the souls there.
The Neapolitan cult of the dead became so intense that the Archbishop of Naples banned it in 1969. This did not prevent the cult continuing until 1980 when damage from an earthquake led to the closure of the church and its underground cemetery. Both were reopened in 1992, and a museum was added to the complex.
Rites and mysteries: The church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco (2001). Retrieved on August 23rd, 2014: http://www.comune.napoli.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/EN/IDPagina/5650
The Cult. Retrieved on August 23rd, 2014: http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.purgatorioadarco.it/&prev=/search%3Fq%3DSanta%2BMaria%2Bdelle%2BAnime%2Bdel%2BPurgatorio%2Bad%2BArco%26safe%3Dactive%26client%3Dsafari%26rls%3Den%26biw%3D1487%26bih%3D557
Koudounaris, P. (2011). The Empire of Death. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson.