Hayley Bowman: What happens after we die? An ominous question, one that captures our imagination as all-too-mortal human beings. This question can seem, well, unseemly, even macabre. Death and the beyond, however fascinating, are concepts that elicit dread and are regarded as best-suited for cemeteries or funerals. Those of us who look to the afterlife peacefully, even hopefully, often draw on their religious beliefs, and hold to an anticipation of reunion with departed loved ones, and perhaps of being embraced by divinity. The religions of the world differ about the nature of this great beyond, and about what, if anything awaits us there.
In mainstream American media, the afterlife appears in various guises, most often with embedded Christian structures and undertones. Take, for example, the popular television show, The Good Place. While I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, suffice to say, the show’s premise rests on core ideas of what is indeed a “Good Place” —Christians might say “heaven”—juxtaposed with a “Bad Place”—Christians might say “hell”—being the possible destinations of the soul after death. In the show, characters end up in the place appropriate to how they have lived, all based on an elaborate points system that sorts the “good” from the “bad.” As the episodes progress, viewers are introduced to another option: a “Medium Place,” a space reserved for those who fit into neither category.
The closest approximation in the Christian tradition to this “Medium Place” is something called “Purgatory.” Other popular movies and TV shows have tackled this concept in different, creative ways. Consider the waiting room in Beetlejuice or even the never-ending repetition of Groundhog Day. Purgatory becomes a place of waiting, of struggle, of transition. A liminal space. A space in-between.
This idea—the liminality of purgatory—has infiltrated our language in other ways. Someone might say that they are “in purgatory” at work, anxious to see if they will get a raise promised by their boss. Standing in line at the DMV feels “like purgatory,” a slow-moving existence for a new license and registration. Even this, the quarantined months of the COVID-19 pandemic, may evoke thoughts of a purgatory, an in-between of time and space. Monotonous. Liminal.
But what if Purgatory was more than just a metaphor? What if, instead, purgatory was in view, right in front of you? Today, we may joke and throw these words around, but Purgatory has a history—a rich and vivid history—the history of a place that can be seen and even visited.
Welcome to Episode 3, Season 2, of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host, Hayley Bowman. In this episode, I’m also going to be your narrator. I’m a PhD candidate in the Department of History. My dissertation, Visualizing Physical and Spiritual Landscapes: a Seventeenth-Century Nun in the Spanish World, explores early modern Spanish understandings of the world and their integration within an overseas colonizing imaginary and mission through the thought and actions Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda.
It was a quiet night, Saturday, October 8th, 1644. In the Convento de la Concepción, a Franciscan convent in the small town of Ágreda, in northeastern Spain. Yet around midnight, the silence was suddenly broken, as the convent floor split open to reveal a deep, wide cavern. The crack in the earth revealed a subterranean realm in which powerful flames licked at a multitude of suffering souls (in human form), some of whom climbed into the room, pouring up and out from their fiery purgatory. One poor soul merited particular attention, that of a recognizable Isabel de Borbón, Queen of the Spanish monarquía. This soul explained that she had briefly escaped the trials of Purgatory and entered this particular convent’s cell with a purpose. The soul of Isabel de Borbón went on to ask several favors of the one living person in the small room: the convent’s abbess, a nun named Sor María de Jesús, who had been deep in silent prayer.
The appearance of this soul might have come as a shock to the abbess, as news of the Queen’s death had not yet arrived from Madrid. In fact, recent reports had suggested her recovery from a recent illness. And yet, here was the soul of the departed Queen Isabel, who spoke:
Stefania Gonzalez: “Mother María, I come to ask you for alms.”
Victoria Vourkoutiotis: “But how does a great Queen ask for alms from a poor woman like me?”
Stefania Gonzalez: “I ask you for them because the rich and powerful of the world are ordinarily the poorest in the afterlife… Although I am purging what I owe for my sins… I want you to know that my salvation is in great danger due to the state of the Monarchy of which I was Queen, because of problems of which you are well aware. And if I become passive, and do not act upon these issues, I will have acted as one complicit in many of them and will be eternally condemned.” 
Hayley Bowman: The soul (and the fiery depths from whence it came) disappeared.
An extraordinary episode, to be sure, but this occasion was not Sor María’s first—or even her last— glimpse into the possibilities of the afterlife and the souls contained there. Sor María de Jesús had already made waves in the 1630s due to reports of her abilities to miraculously “bi-locate,” that is, to be in two places at one time. An official investigation into her claims confirmed that Sor María had appeared simultaneously both in her convent cell in Ágreda and in the northernmost reaches of the Viceroyalty of New Spain—what is now known as New Mexico and West Texas in the southwestern United States. While in the New World, she engaged in conversion efforts like a missionary among indigenous peoples new to the Catholic Christian faith. As news of the miracle spread, Sor María became well known, eventually coming to the attention of King Philip IV, who quickly sought out the nun as a spiritual advisor. Her vision of his recently-deceased wife was but one in a series of miraculous experiences recorded by this nun, who proceeded to walk a fine line between sharing her knowledge, witnessing, and experiences with others, and guarding herself against charges of error and demonic corruption by scrutinizing religious officials and the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
But what can we learn from taking a mystical trip with Sor María into the depths of the earth, and by taking such an early modern journey seriously?
Sor María’s visions of Purgatory illuminate a border historical context. A bigger picture emerges about the ways in which early modern Spaniards understood not just an afterlife, but also their own position in the wider world and cosmos. In particular, let’s consider how and why supernatural places like Purgatory existed alongside what we might call a “colonizing imaginary,” that is, a worldview that emerged out of the Spanish colonial claims in the New World. Throughout what historians usually designate as the “early modern” period, between roughly 1500 and 1800, Spanish explorers, settlers, and missionaries crossed the Atlantic ocean and embarked on vast and aspirational missions of conquest, colonization, and conversion of the indigenous peoples they encountered there. These efforts included much mapping and chronicling. These simultaneously cartographic and historically descriptive projects would attempt to depict not only lands and peoples claimed by the Spanish crown in both image and text, but also integrate them into something like a universal historical vision. With Sor María de Ágreda’s help, I want to take these established ideas and push them still further: for during this period, Spaniards attempted to map and situate not only worldly but also otherworldly spaces. Places like hell, purgatory, and limbo, and they did so just as they mapped and described, with ever-greater detail, the Americas and the wider world itself.
Chris Tamayo: E canterò di quel secondo regno,
Dove l’umano spirito si purga
E di salire al ciel diventa degno.
Now I shall sing of the second kingdom,
There where the soul of man is cleansed,
Made worthy to ascend to Heaven.
(Dante, “Purgatorio,” Canto 1, lines 4-6) 
Hayley Bowman: If you ever read Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, perhaps in your high school English class, you might recognize these lines from the second part of the poem, called, as you might have guessed, “Purgatorio.” Written in the early fourteenth century, this poem is widely considered one of the greatest works of Italian literature. It tells the story of Dante’s travels through hell, purgatory, and paradise, and it draws on medieval Catholic understandings of the afterlife. Dante describes Purgatory as a great mountain on an island located in the Southern Hemisphere, on the side of the world directly opposite from the holy city of Jerusalem. According to Dante, the island was created when Satan fell from heaven and created hell.
Though related in their origins, as Dante notes, hell and purgatory formed distinct spaces with different purposes. Hell, an eternal destination for evil souls, ensures wrongdoers experience suffering, torture, and punishment for their sinful living. Purgatory, on the other hand, introduces nuance for those souls bound eventually for Heaven. This space does not punish souls indefinitely. Instead, it functions as a transitory station of the afterlife in which souls are purified before entering the paradise of heaven. For Dante, Purgatory is the place “where the soul of man is cleansed.”
But where did Dante get his ideas? Let’s see what the catechism, perfected in time by the Roman Catholic Church, has to say about Purgatory:
Kieran Westphal: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”
Hayley Bowman: Dante’s poem is literature, a work of fiction. And yet Dante’s Divine Comedy is an intentional “exact imagining” of a fictional pilgrimage through the afterlife based on both learned and popular understandings. His account of a perilous journey through hell, purgatory, and, eventually, paradise is based on a nonfictional medieval Catholic thoughtworld that he shared with his contemporaries. It is an envisioning that, as I have suggested, persists even today. And one that Dante shared, some three centuries later, with a Spanish nun in a small village in northeastern Spain.
Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda was not the only early modern Spaniard to witness the suffering souls of the underworld. In fact, the idea of an afterlife in general and of Purgatory in particular resonated profoundly in early modern Spain due to what is known as the Counter-Reformation. In the sixteenth century Protestantism swept through Europe from the Germanic areas of the Holy Roman Empire and posed a significant challenge to Catholicism. Catholic responses to both internal and Protestant critiques included a redefinition and revival of certain beliefs and practices. This responsive aspect is at the heart of why historians have often called this the Counter-Reformation—a Catholic “counter” to the Protestant Reformation.
Even if you’re only vaguely familiar with some variation of modern Protestantism, you might recognize that Protestants don’t believe in Purgatory. The reason why Puratory appears in the modern Catholic Catechism and not in Protestant teachings is because it was one of the beliefs identified as problematic and thus criticized by sixteenth-century Protestants. Protestants rejected Purgatory for several theological reasons, though not least because it offered a truly sensational way of distinguishing themselves and their beliefs from those of Catholicism. The peninsular kingdoms we now think of as “Spain,” a deeply and famously Catholic monarchy, emerged as a defender and leader of Counter-Reformation thought and ideology during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These factors combined to create an environment centered on the afterlife and Purgatory in particular.
Professor Carlos Erie teaches in history, religious studies, and in the divinity school at Yale University. In his 1995 book, From Madrid to Purgatory: the Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain, Eire explains,
Chris Tamayo: “Purgatory loomed large and near in the mentality of early modern Spain… Though eager for heaven, most sixteenth-century Spaniards hoped, at best, for a stint in purgatory… [Purgatory] was as near to them as their own graves and those of their dearly departed and was as much a part of their reality as the churches in which they were buried and the coins with which they paid for masses. Only the souls of the holiest men and women, always few in number, could hope to enter heaven directly. For most people—elites and nonelites alike—death was not a journey from Madrid to heaven, so to speak, but from Madrid to purgatory.”
Hayley Bowman: Understanding Purgatory as a place—and, moreover, as a place that could be visited by the especially faithful, a place that became a stop along a journey to heaven—built upon a concept that, as we have seen, is not so far removed from the pages of Dante’s poetic narrative. In a 2011 general audience, Pope Benedict XVI explained that for St. Catherine of Genoa, a fifteenth-century Italian mystic, Purgatory existed on several planes:
Kieran Westphal: “In her day it was depicted mainly using images linked to space: a certain space was conceived of in which purgatory was supposed to be located. Catherine, however, did not see purgatory as a scene in the bowels of the earth: for her it is not an exterior but rather an interior fire. This is purgatory: an inner fire.”
Hayley Bowman: In this address, the Pope created a distance between St. Catherine’s understanding of purgatory as an actual place and modern Catholic interpretations of Purgatory today as an inner suffering. However, the tension between, the duality of an interior and an exterior torment understood by St. Catherine, is one she shared with her early modern contemporaries, and especially other early modern women.
Professor Nancy van Deusen: These visionaries were relying on the work of medieval mystics and visionaries, most notably Hildegard of Bingen, in the 12th century, who not only had visions of seeing souls in purgatory, of working as an, as intercessors to lessen the purgatorial stay and the intensity of sins, but they were encouraged or, they, they really worked hard to write their own visions.
Hayley Bowman: That was Professor Nancy E. van Deusen, a historian at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Nancy van Deusen: And eventually these manuscripts were published, disseminated, circulated, translated. And so then they arrive in the early modern period, translated into Spanish. And so women in the 16th and 17th centuries, see these medieval sisters as exemplary, they see them as models, they see them as a way of developing their own sense of purgatorial piety on behalf of souls that are suffering. And they feel connected to them.
Hayley Bowman: What was particular about women’s experiences of Counter-Reformation Catholicism and about how different women interacted with institutionalized religion? How were the religious thoughts and lives of such women shaped and dictated by their gender?
Nancy van Deusen: Women were not to be seen in public, or they’re not supposed to preach, they’re not supposed to say mass, or take confession. And so because there were limitations to the kind of social services they could do in the world, en el siglo, as they say in Spanish, I would argue and I’ve argued elsewhere, that the interior lives of women were particularly well-developed. And so, because they had those restrictions, they went inward.
Hayley Bowman: In fact, visions, suffering, and intercession on the behalf of departed souls became increasingly associated with female piety during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Within this context, Sor María’s interaction with the soul of Isabel de Borbón, while particularly vivid, fits naturally into Counter-Reformation understandings of female piety.
What, exactly, did Sor María see in Purgatory? Drawing from key sources, here’s what she reported:
Victoria Vourkoutiotis: “At the center and heart of the earth is hell, purgatory, and limbo. The diameter of the earth is 2,502 leagues and in the middle, there is hell, which is up to 1,251 leagues [below the earth’s surface]. [Hell, purgatory, and limbo], along with the sacred place where the Lord shed his blood, are in the center of the earth. Purgatory is beneath Mount Calvary, with hell on one side and limbo on the other… Hell is a chaotic cavern that contains many dark rooms with a variety of punishments, all of them formidable and frightening. All of these together form a globe like a huge jar, with a spacious mouth or entrance. In this horrible dungeon of confusion and torment were the demons and all the damned. [Purgatory, however, is] not as large as hell, and though there are great punishments in purgatory, they have no connection to the hell of the damned.”
Hayley Bowman: Like a traveller exploring a strange, new land, Sor María guides us through the underworld, its “many dark rooms” a maze of “confusion and torment.” Perhaps even more intriguing, she provides a specific location for the place of Purgatory: it is beneath Mount Calvary, the famous site of Christ’s crucifixion. In some ways, this precision is similar to Dante’s approximation, essentially underneath Jerusalem. However, in other cases, Sor María provides unique details. For example, her approximations of distances in leagues sounds not only decidedly earthly, but also similar to chronicles and travel accounts of the Americas. Unlike the literary poetry of Dante, Sor María’s description is that of a seasoned traveller, a contemporary explorer, an eyewitness to the supernatural space of punishment and redemption. It is the account of someone who has lived, seen with her own eyes the fiery depths, and spoken to the souls within.
Whether or not Sor María truly and miraculously traveled to hell and Purgatory or spoke with the soul of the Spanish Queen Isabel de Borbón, is not a question that we, as historians, can answer. We cannot see or experience for ourselves what someone else—and especially someone living hundreds of years ago—saw and experienced. We have only the accounts left to us and preserved through time. But I think these are not really even the most interesting questions to ask. What is more intriguing is what her account reveals about the possibilities. The possibilities available to early modern women to participate in and contribute to larger understandings about the world, both in this life and the next. Sor María’s reputation as a gifted female mystic in Counter-Reformation Spain allowed her to travel—albeit miraculously—like her male counterparts, conquistadors and missionaries, to places far beyond the shores of the Iberian peninsula. In so doing, she became both a mirror and a maker of a Spanish “colonizing imaginary.” She reflected and contributed to a dynamic network of knowing, which focused on gathering and producing knowledge about the world and larger cosmos.
To test this idea of feminine possibilities, we need not go too far. Let’s travel across the Atlantic ocean again, but this time to the city of Lima, the capital of what was known in the seventeenth century as Spain’s vast Viceroyalty of Peru. There, a woman of African descent, born into slavery, named Ursula de Jesús, labored as a slave until the age of forty-three. Ursula de Jesús later recorded an account of her own life, which has been studied, translated, and published by Nancy E. van Deusen.
Nancy van Deusen: Just by way of introduction, she was a woman of African descent, but she was born in Peru at the beginning of the 17th century. Her mother was a slave. We don’t really know who her father was. Some say that he was a Spaniard, but I, I don’t have clear evidence of that, other than from her biographer. And, she, you know, she was a slave and she lived in slavery and out in the world and in a convent. And so she experienced what it was like to do the labor, use your body as a laboring body on behalf of others, and particularly on behalf of nuns, so privilege or discrimination definitely have a really big role in the ways by which women, configure purgatory, as well as who they see in their visions.
Hayley Bowman: For Ursula de Jesus, like Sor Maria in Spain, experienced mystical visions of the underworld. However, and significantly, Ursula de Jesús was not a white-skinned, Spanish abbess in a small village in northeastern Spain. She was a black, enslaved religious servant in the colonial city of Lima.
Women of color—and especially enslaved women of color—faced significant restrictions to inclusion and participation, as well as in what was considered “appropriate” spiritual expression. Such women were considered especially susceptible to error, even more likely to find themselves the subjects of an investigation by the Inquisition. The results of such investigations could mean the difference between life and death. The stakes were high. Nevertheless, Ursula was one of those who leveraged her literacy and her position as a spiritually-gifted woman by tapping into existing tropes about women’s extraordinary roles as intercessors and visionaries. She created what amounted to her own path to wield spiritual authority through her own lived experience.
Nancy van Deusen: Now, I’m not saying that no Spanish nuns or nuns of Spanish descent, saw slaves, or servants. I’m not saying that at all. But it tends to be your cohort or the people with whom you spend your time. So Ursula, in particular is, you know, as a woman of color, she communicates a lot with people who were part of her world, the servilel world, and she was privileged enough to become a donada, a religious servant. She was also fortunate to have a nun buy her freedom for her. So, Ursula went from one class or she went from not being owner of her body to being the owner of her body, being a free woman. But by being a donada, she was still a religious servant, and having lived most of her life in the convent, she didn’t gain her freedom until she was in her forties. Some of the nuns still saw her and still discriminated against her, seeing her still as a kind of “free slave” as it were. And they ridiculed her mystic abilities thinking that she was arrogant. So Ursula had to grapple with that a lot.
Hayley Bowman: Like Sor María, Ursula de Jesús experienced visions, visions that she was uniquely equipped to address. But, what did she see? According to one entry in Ursula’s diary, on a Monday in the convent’s choir while deep in prayer, she suddenly became aware of two Black women, in her words, “below the earth.” One of them spoke:
Emilia Vizachero: “I am Luisa… and I have been in purgatory for this long, only because the great merciful God showed compassion toward me. No one remembers me.”
Hayley Bowman: The soul’s plea for remembrance hints at Ursula’s critical, even defining role. Ursula’s visions of souls in purgatory overwhelmingly represented female religious women of African descent. Forgotten and without the prayers of the living, their souls suffered in the afterlife based on the same racial descrimination they endured before death. At a moment when the single largest group in the Peruvian capital were not indigenous or Spanish, but rather women of African descent, Ursula de Jesús thus had an opportunity to use her authority as a mystical visionary to intercede on their behalf, to help the souls of enslaved, Black women such as herself ascend to heaven.
Sor María wielded a certain authority and privilege due to her connections with the King and her contemporary fame as a miracle-working mystic, among her other accomplishments. Though she transcended both the barrier between the earth and the underworld and the boundaries of her gender to participate in early modern Spanish encompassing of the world, she did so from a position of relative power, in some ways, due to her circumstances. But she was not alone. Other women with similar mystical inspiration and vision did not enjoy such luxuries. Gender, race, and socioeconomic status presented barriers that even the most spiritually-gifted could not fully bypass. Yet the example of Ursula de Jesús reveals the possibilities that “seeing purgatorio” could afford people, including these women, in the seventeenth century.
Nancy van Deusen: Women are at the foreground of this. Women of color, Spanish women, it doesn’t matter—they’re the ones who are taking this universalized notion and reconfiguring it. They’re very creatively reconfiguring and reconceptualizing it in these colonial settings. And so Ursula is, she’s dealing with the cards that she’s been dealt and those help configure her concerns. It configures who she talks to, how she saves people, et cetera, but she’s also part of a larger, colonial world, and she like other female visionaries, are very actively participating in this, this very rich, colonial world of purgatory.
Hayley Bowman: Religious women like Sor María and Ursula de Jesús became spiritual conduits, transmitters and messengers between the supernatural and worldly realms. In part empowered by their authority as experienced visionaries and intercessors, both mystics navigated their positions as women within the early modern Catholic church and Spanish world to achieve renown and authority otherwise relegated to men. Their accounts were not mere products of contemporary understandings and fears about the afterlife; instead, these accounts document an active, indeed masterly participation in the development and shaping of vital ideas by sharing their personal experiences and interactions with suffering souls of all social standings. After all, the souls of Spanish royalty and afro-Peruvian slaves alike, ended up in the same place.
These women experienced purgatory as more than just a metaphor—it was a place that they could see and touch, one made real not only their experiences but by their writing down of their experiences. In sharing what they encountered, Sor María and Ursula de Jesús became knowledge-makers, experiential contributors to the perennial human wondering before the question: “What happens after we die?”
Thank you so much for joining us. A special thank you to our contributor for this episode, Professor Nancy E. van Deusen. And another special thank you to our voice actors, in order of appearance, Stefania Gonzalez, Victoria Vourkoutiotis, Chris Tamayo, Emilia Vizachero, and Kieran Westphal. Our editorial board is Professor Melanie Tanielian, Taylor Sims, Christopher DeCou, and Arielle Gordon. Our production team is executive producer Gregory Parker, and I’m your season producer and segment producer for this episode, Hayley Bowman. I hope that you’ll join us for our next episode, for more stories on how the past reverberates in the present. This is Reverb Effect.
- Nancy E. van Deusen, Embodying the Sacred: Woman Mystics in Seventeenth-Century Lima (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
- Ursula de Jesús, The Souls of Purgatory: The Spiritual Diary of a Seventeenth-Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic, Ursula de Jesús, edited and translated by Nancy E. van Deusen (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004).
- Carlos Eire, From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth Century Spain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
- Marilyn H. Fedewa, María of Ágreda: Mystical Lady in Blue (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
- Ellen Gunnasdóttir, Mexican Karismata: The Baroque Vocation of Francisca de los Angeles, 1674-1744 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).
- Anna M. Nogar, Quill and Cross in the Borderlands: Sor María de Ágreda and the Lady in Blue, 1628 to the Present (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018).
- Kathryn Joyce McKnight, The Mystic of Tunja: The Writings of Madre Castillo, 1671-1741 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997).
 Ágreda, “Revelaciones del alma de la reina Isabel de Borbón a Sor María,” in Cartas, 256; Ágreda, h-IV-2, “En que declara lo q. la paso con la alma de la Reyna Dona Isabel de Borbon” (El Escorial: Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, seventeenth century), 95v-96v.
 For a comprehensive biography of Sor María, see Marilyn H. Fedewa, María of Ágreda: Mystical Lady in Blue. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008. For her influence in the Americas, see Anna M. Nogar, Quill and Cross in the Borderlands: Sor María de Ágreda and the Lady in Blue, 1628 to the Present. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018.
 The text of the entire Divine Comedy, in both English translation and Italian, can be found online, via the Princeton Dante Project.
 Inferno, Canto 34, lines 121-126 and Purgatorio, Canto 2, lines 1-9.
 Inga Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
 Eire, From Madrid to Purgatory, 15.
 van Deusen, The Souls of Purgatory, 37-39.
 These descriptions are compiled from several of Sor María’s writings, including a treatise called “De la redondez del mundo,” a letter she wrote to Franciscan Minister-General Padre Pedro Manero, and her recorded visions of the souls of Queen Isabel de Borbón and Infante Balthasar Carlos.
 Van Deusen, The Souls of Purgatory, 82.