The Anima Sola in Mexican Devotional Art

Little information is available in Mexican literature about the Anima Sola -- literally translated, the lonely soul -- despite the fact that most students of Spanish Colonial art are familiar with the image of a soul or souls suffering in purgatory. The Anima Sola, whose popularity seems to have reached a pinnacle during the 19th century, was the subject of a cult of devotion throughout Mexico that grew in popularity to achieve a status equal to many of the most famous saints.

In a nutshell, the idea of souls in purgatory is related to the concept of “sin” in Catholic theology. The precept is based on the notion that only a soul free from the taint of sin can come into the presence of God. Followers of the cult believed some people die with smaller faults, for which there was no real repentance, or the temporal penalty due on their sin was not wholly paid for in this life. According to Church teaching, temporal punishment was due to God as penance for sins. Even when the sinner's transgressions may have been forgiven, the penalty was still owed.

Thus, according to liturgical teaching, purgatory, from the Latin "purgare," meaning to make clean or purify, was and still is a place or condition of finite punishment for those who have departed this life in God’s grace, but were not entirely free from venial faults, or who had not fully paid the satisfaction due on their transgressions. As such, those who die with this taint on their souls must be purified by suffering some punishment before they can be accepted into heaven. Purgatory is the place or state where tainted souls go to suffer for their sins and, through that suffering, reach a state of purification requisite to enter heaven.

In Catholic Mexico, cult followers believed the animas in purgatory could hear the prayers of the living and could intercede in the payment of the purgatorial debt of a petitioner’s loved ones who died in sin. In some sects of the cult, an anima was believed to have had an even greater power, i.e. the ability to create a living purgatory or condition of suffering on earth for a person or persons who had injured the petitioner.

The doctrine of purgatory has been an article of faith since before the time of Christ. It evolved from teachings prevalent among the ancient peoples of India and Persia, who believed in purification by fire after death. This teaching was also prominent among the early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The Greek influence reached as far as pre-Roman occupied Palestine, where gradually rabbis began to teach that sin-assuaging offerings made by children could relieve their deceased parents of great afterlife suffering.

Before the coming of Christ, Jews believed, as revealed in the Old Testament, that the good acts and offerings of survivors could mediate for the sins of the deceased (2 Macc. 12:41–45). Other pre-Christian Jewish works, such as one that claims Adam will be in mourning "until the day of dispensing punishment in the last years, when I will turn his sorrow into joy" (The Life of Adam and Eve 46–7), speak to the same principal. Orthodox Jews to this day believe in a final purification and, for eleven months after the death of a loved one, they recite a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish for their loved one’s purification.

Until the year 1300, Christianity had only two ultimate determinations for the souls of the departed: heaven or hell. The good went one way and the evil the other. To the faithful, it appeared that only nuns, friars, priests and other clergy would populate heaven and that the non-religious vocations would descend to the other. This rendered preaching to the laity problematic, as it was apparent to the common faithful that they had little likelihood of salvation.

 However, about this time, the idea of purgatory began to gain acceptance among the Church hierarchy. Purgatory began to receive wide support in the Church because it offered another alternative to life after death. This new alternative, the theology of purgatory, gave the masses a substantive reason to strive for a moral life. Purgatory became a valuable concept for the clergy because it opened a pathway to heaven for the laity as a whole. Its popularity grew until it reached a peak in the 19th century.
To more fully grasp the import of the concept of purgatory popular at this time, it helps to examine the doctrine of indulgences propagated by the medieval Church. An indulgence was the abatement of the afterlife punishment a penitent owed for sin that had been forgiven in this life. In other words, a sinner might have been forgiven, but still owed a debt to be paid after death for his "evil ways."

The indulgence acted to provide not only forgiveness for the sin, but absolved the requirement for any after-death purification. Such remission was granted by the Church in its exercise of the “power of the keys” given to Peter by Christ, along with His admonition that whatever the head of the Church bound on earth would also be bound in heaven This power of the keys included the right to confer or withhold forgiveness for sin and/or any punishment or penance related to it; it was literally the power to open and shut the gates of heaven.

At the time of the Reformation, the Church was selling indulgences. The sale was usually for cash or a cash substitute such as a grant of land to the Church. A person could literally purchase forgiveness for sin and its related punishment from the Church. Thus, theoretically, the wealthy could purchase their way out of purgatory. The construct of purgatory gained even wider acceptance in the medieval Roman Church because it served as a response to Martin Luther and similar reformers, who did not believe in the practice of selling indulgences. In fact, Luther asserted that "[i]ndulgences are pious frauds of the faithful." Therefore, the belief that purchasing indulgences assuaged afterlife obligations to do penance backhandedly spurred acceptance of the principle of purgatory. It became a road to heaven for the common man and at the same time, among the clergy, an aid to counter the Reformers.

However, as the breach widened between the Church and its protagonists, the denial of purgatory by the Reformers became a mainstay of reformative doctrine. To this day, many modern Protestant sects continue to avoid the term "purgatory" and, if they believe in any penance after death, substitute the related theory of "the middle state." Even today, while the idea of purgatory is anathema to many Protestant sects, it remains comforting to Roman Catholics.

The doctrine of purgatory was endorsed in the early 16th century by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order, during the turbulent years of the Counter-Reformation. Some scholars believe it was the Jesuits who brought the cult of the Anima Sola to Mexico, where they used it to foster adherence to the Church’s moral and ethical standards.

There is a maxim in “cultured” society that art simply reflects the knowledge of the people. In that vein, Colonial and post-Colonial Mexican artists represented purgatory as a specific place, since the clergy preached that it was an actual place in the same way heaven and hell were pictured as places. The idea that purgatory, heaven and hell were actual physical localities still remains a popular way to portray these afterlife states. However, in Catholic metaphysics, only two points are necessary dogma concerning purgatory: first, there is a place of transition/ transformation for those en route to Heaven and, second, prayer is efficacious for the dead who are in this state. The idea that the three are actual places within physical space is no longer part of the Church's teaching. Pope John Paul II renounced such an idea with regard to purgatory, stating that "the term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence.”

Since ancient times, the pain of purification has traditionally been likened to fire. The image of fire has been common in the West from at least the time of Saint Augustine, who declared that this "fire will be worse than anything a human being can suffer in this life." Acceptance of the concept caused souls burning in purgatory to be prominently portrayed in most important medieval churches in Europe.

In Mexican Colonial and post-Colonial artistic images, the souls in purgatory were most often presented in one of three forms: carved wood statues often with gesso and polychrome paint known as santos; small paintings on copper or tin called laminas or retablos; and full size canvas paintings. The theme was also seen occasionally in stone sculpture decorating church facades, like the one on the back outside wall of the National Cathedral in Mexico City.

In Mexican art, the animas were pictured in their most basic human form (naked) and not as spiritual manifestations or ghosts. Individually, they were of either gender and often members of both genders were depicted in group representation. No one was spared and all strata of society were depicted. While the common man was ubiquitous, representations frequently included friars, prelates, bishops and even characters wearing the Pope’s miter. Royalty was not spared, as figures wearing crowns are relatively common in group representations. A number of races familiar to early Mexicans (white, brown and black were all present in Colonial Mexico) were shown, including indigenous tribal figures identified by their unique hair treatments.

Full-size canvas paintings of the Anima Sola are not unfamiliar, but for the most part large canvases usually depict the Anima on Judgment Day. They are usually presented among crowds of souls, angels, saints and heavenly personages, or as a supplicant petitioning intercessors, such as the figures at the feet of La Merced or La Madre Santisima de la Luz. Canvases with anima themes were created by some of the most celebrated Mexican painters, including Miguel Cabrera (1695 – 1768) and Juan Correa (1646 - 1716), but they were also very popular with anonymous artists whose works were created for less than landed gentry.

Statues of anima figures were very popular in parish churches and were usually crafted in the round so the likeness could be viewed from all angles. They were fashioned in all sizes -- from small pieces made in male and female pairs for home veneration to life-size examples intended to be extolled in cathedrals and important monasteries It was not unusual for a life-size anima to be placed on a stand that also served as a money box in a church vestibule. Antique examples of large animas can be seen today in churches in Taxco, Puebla, Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende and many other major cities.

A related form of santo is a crucifix known as the cruz de animas ("cross of souls”). In form, it is a cross mounted on a stand and examples range from about 6 inches to 24 inches in height. The cross and stand are traditionally painted black and display Christ crucified, as well as the symbols of His Passion, which are painted on the cross around Him. The instruments of the passion or Arma Christi, are fairly numerous and include the lantern used by the Roman soldiers when they arrested Christ in the Garden; the sword Peter used to cut off the ear of the Roman soldier during Christ’s arrest; the rooster that crowed when Peter denied Christ for the third time; a bag of coins symbolizing the 30 pieces of silver given Judas to betray Christ; the pillar or column where Christ was scourged; the crown of thorns; Christ's robe and the dice used by the Roman soldiers to gamble for it; a reed the Romans placed in Christ’s hands as a mock scepter after applying the crown of thorns, the nails and/or hammer used during the crucifixion; the sponge the Romans used to give Christ vinegar to drink; the lance that pierced His side; Veronica’s veil used to wipe His face and that thereafter showed an image of His face; the Holy Grail (the chalice used at the last supper); the sun and moon representing the eclipse that took place at Christ’s death; the ladder used to remove Him from the cross; the pliers or pinchers used to remove the nails and the shroud that wrapped His body; and the Titulus Crucis – the sign attached to the cross with the letters INRI. The Dolorosa (the suffering Madonna), San Miguel and other personages, such as angels, may also present. The base or stand almost always bears representations of a group of animas. These pieces were almost a type of Catholic catechism, a summary of the narrative details of the Passion of Christ. Certainly, they served as a reminder to viewers to offer prayers and good works for the souls of the dead.

Many examples of the cruz de animas were created as retablo paintings on flat pieces of sheet tin, wood panel or copper plate. For the most part, the wooden crosses and retablo paintings were produced in the area around Queretaro and were particularly popular with the Ótomi Indian culture.

During the 19th century, animas were also a popular subject for print media. The image could be found on inexpensive, mass produced prints, holy cards and broadsides. José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), the most famous Mexican graphic artist of the era, created a now famous broadside of a female anima. He also used animas to illustrate books and pamphlets.

Paintings and other artwork decorating many churches and missions throughout Mexico depict Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James the Moor Killer, on his horse with upraised sword trampling Moorish soldiers, easily identified by their turbans. Reference to these turban-clad figures may have been included in anima art.

After the Moorish expulsion from Spain in the late 15th century, Islamic converts to Catholicism became common in Colonial and post-Colonial New Spain. The Moors, believers in Islam, had invaded Spain and occupied the country for 700 years. They were finally expelled during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, the same year Columbus first came to the New World. During their 700-year occupation, the Moors had a tremendous influence on Spain. After the Moors' expulsion, many families, forced by their Moorish occupiers to convert to Islam, re-converted to Christianity. It is likely Islamic re-converts ventured from Spain to the New World, lured by the promise of riches that fostered the influx of Spanish colonists to the New World after the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. Theoretically, this could explain the presence of anima figures wearing Islamic-style turbans and headdresses bearing a red cross on the front. This representation may have been used to portray Islamic converts or the re-converted posthumously consigned to purgatory to reconcile sins related to the practice of a non-Catholic faith, which was considered sinful. Over time, the idea that these “red-cross turban” animas had their genesis in Islamic converts to Christianity was likely lost and completely unknown to 19th century Mexican retablo artists, who occasionally included it in their art.

It was customary for Mexican anima figures to be presented undressed and in flames. The usual figure is depicted from the waist up. Animas almost always have manacled wrists, frequently with broken chains attached. Their hands are often pictured folded or in other positions of prayer or supplication. The broken chains symbolize the anima’s release from eternal damnation. The flames show the subject still paying a debt through torment, a debt owed for sins committed during life.

On the other hand, in European art, the Anima Sola is rarely seen as the sole subject of a painting. Usually, in European depictions, animas are presented in groups and with intercessor saints, like St. Michael the Archangel, Our Lady of Mount Carmel or Our Lady of the Rosary. In such paintings, each intercessor is portrayed saving these souls from the flames of purgatory.

Occasionally, animas are seen in 19th century Mexican retablo paintings wearing a Marian scapular symbolizing an anticipated quick relief from torment. A scapular is composed of two small rectangular brown cloth patches, joined by fabric chords so it can be worn around the neck, with one patch to the front and one to the back. There is usually a devotional image on each cloth patch.

According to tradition, in the 13th century, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock, Superior General of the Carmelite Order, and gave him the brown scapular. She told him that whoever wore one would be preserved from eternal damnation and, on the first Saturday after death, would be taken by her to heaven. Since that time, the brown scapular has been considered an outward sign of love and devotion to the Virgin and an acknowledgment of her special role in God’s plan of salvation. It is a miniature model of the larger form worn by members of the Carmelite Order as part of their religious habit.

Images of the animas also appear on 19th century ex-votos, which are painted offerings given in thanks to Christ, the Virgin Mary or a saint for a miraculous cure or similar intercession. Frequently, these animas appear at the foot of the cross, most often in ex-votos featuring Our Lord of Mercy (El Señor de la Misericordia), an image of Christ crucified. They are also encountered in paintings and sculptures of Michael the Archangel. It is not uncommon to see Michael depicted with a balance scale he uses to weigh and judge souls. Animas are frequently pictured in or approaching his scale, ready to be adjudged worthy of heaven.

In closing, this article is not intended as a scholarly treatise on the Anima Sola. It is simply a compilation of information gathered from many sources over several years and is presented for the use and enjoyment of our LADAP membership. Any failure to cite a source is an oversight and not the result of intent.

Dan McCauley:

Photos provided by James Eddy -

i The Catholic Encyclopedia,
ii Purgatory,
iii Id.
iv The Roots of Purgatory,
v Religion and Devotion in Europe 1215-1515, Swanson, Robert N., Cambridge University Press,[date], pages 36-37.
vi The Catholic Encyclopedia, search indulgence
vii Id. Search power of the keys
viii search indulgence
ix Why the Need for Purgatory;
x Id.
xi From East to West,
xii General Audience August 4, 1999

xiii; Wikipedia: Purgatory

xiv Zarua, E. and Lovell, C., Art and Faith in Mexico, Univ. New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2001, page 327.
xv Saints and Sinners, Caswell, J., Schiffer Publishing and the California Heritage Museum, 2006, pages 150, 188.
xvi For examples, see generally: Art and Faith in Mexico; Saints and Sinners, , and less available publications, Pintura novahispana, Asociacide Amigos del Museo Nacional del Virreinato, 1994, Tomo II (volume two) and Juegos de ingenio y agudeza, Museo Nacional de Arte, 1994.
xvii Saints and Sinners, Caswell comments to illustrations, page 145.
xviii Las Animas del Purgatorio, an engraving dated 1909 by José Guadalupe Posada, can be seen at the University of New Mexico site:

xix Note: Longtime student and collector of Mexican retablo art, Philip Wrench, postulates in his article, "The Figures of Purgatory in Mexican Retablos," featured in Saints and Sinners, that the turban- adorned figures actually represent members of parish confraternities, an equally plausible theory regarding the origin of this symbolism.
xx Art and Faith in Mexico, page 327.
xxi Id. At figure 121. Saints and Sinners, page 148.
xxii Id.
xxiii "The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel," Fournier, Catherine

xxiv See illustration, St. Michael Archangel, Pintura novahispana, pages 159 and 160.