Insuring your salvation from an eternity in Hell was as important to a believer in the sixteenth century (whether king or commoner) as getting a good crop or transporting your wool to market. According to the Roman Catholic Church, there could be no entrance into Heaven without the Church and its exclusive sacraments which purified the soul.
Take, for example, King Henry IV of France who on May 14, 1610, was stopped in his carriage on a street in Paris, and was stabbed in the chest by an assassin monk. His companions, although sure he was already dead, covered his wounds as he was rushed backed to the palace. Laid out on his bed, a priest put his ear to the king’s mouth in order to hear a possible last confession but no sound came from the dead monarch’s mouth. The sacrament of Last Rites could not be performed and one could assume poor King Henry never made it to Heaven.
“The Third Place”: Purgatory
Salvation should have been easy for all sixteenth-century Roman Catholics as long as they received their sacraments. However, as in the case of Henry IV, death might be sudden leaving sins unconfessed. If you died with unconfessed mortal sins (for example, murder, robbery), you certainly wound up in Hell for eternity. God’s judgment upon your death with unconfessed venial (lesser) sins sent you to Purgatory, the “Third Place,” as Martin Luther called it.
Purgatory was not an eternal abode, but a place where your soul spent an unknown period of time, undergoing a purging of venial sins such as theft, lying, or some minor church offense. Such purgation through fire could last anywhere from a day to millions of years, and God never gave clues as to how long a soul would stay in Purgatory. Pictured, An Angel, Freeing the Souls from Purgatory by Ludovico Carracci, c1612.
The existence of Purgatory became carefully defined through the authority of the thirteenth-century Roman Catholic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. At the Council of Lyons (1439), the Roman Catholic Church decreed Purgatory, and believers saw it as a densely populated place which was nearly impossible to avoid.
We can now see why a real crisis of salvation existed in the early sixteenth century. Christians (and all Christians were Roman Catholics in Western Europe) had to keep careful track of all their sins so that they could give an accurate accounting of them at the confessional. It seemed certain that all Christians were sentenced to Hell or Purgatory while only Church martyrs and saints gained immediate entry into Heaven because of their sinless state. But how long were those who were going to be eventually saved have to stay in Purgatory? What’s notable about all of this is the notion that humans had some sort of control over the length of time they would have to stay there.
“Shortening a Stay in Purgatory”
The Church created the indulgence as a hedge against too long a stay in Purgatory (pictured). Christians could, depending on how much money they paid for these indulgences, shorten their own souls or the souls of their relatives’ duration in Purgatory and hasten entry into Heaven by a year, ten years, several hundred or however much they could afford. However, if the uncertain Christian had not paid enough; the poor soul still might have another several million years to spend in Purgatory or, conversely, he may have overpaid. Proceeds from the purchase of indulgences were used for rebuilding the ancient St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was a win-win solution for the Church and an uncertain one for the buyer of the indulgences.