From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Indulgence, in Roman Catholic theology, is the paid full or partial remission of temporal punishment due to sins which have already been forgiven. The indulgence is granted by the church after the sinner has confessed and received absolution.
Indulgences became increasingly popular in the Middle Ages as a reward for displaying piety and doing good deeds, though, doctrinally speaking, the Church stated that the indulgence was only valid for temporal punishment for sins already forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession. The faithful asked that indulgences be given for saying their favourite prayers, doing acts of devotion, attending places of worship, and going on pilgrimage; confraternities wanted indulgences for putting on performances and processions; associations demanded that their meetings be rewarded with indulgences. Money raised by indulgences was used for many righteous causes, both religious and civil; building projects funded by indulgences include churches, hospitals, leper colonies, schools, roads, and bridges.
However, the later Middle Ages saw the growth of considerable abuses. Greedy commissaries sought to extract the maximum amount of money for each indulgence. Professional "pardoners" (quaestores in Latin) - who were sent to collect alms for a specific project - practiced the unrestricted sale of indulgences. Many of these quaestores exceeded Church teachings, whether in avarice or ignorant zeal, and promised impossible rewards like salvation from eternal damnation in return for money. With the permission of the Church, indulgences also became a way for Catholic rulers to fund expensive projects, such as Crusades and cathedrals, by keeping a significant portion of the money raised from indulgences in their lands. There was a tendency to forge documents declaring that indulgences had been granted. Indulgences grew to extraordinary magnitude, in terms of longevity and breadth of forgiveness.
The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) suppressed some abuses connected with indulgences, spelling out, for example, that only a one-year indulgence would be granted for the consecration of churches and no more than a 40-days indulgence for other occasions. The Council also stated that "Catholics who have girded themselves with the cross for the extermination of the heretics, shall enjoy the indulgences and privileges granted to those who go in defense of the Holy Land."
But very soon these limits were widely exceeded. False documents were circulated with indulgences surpassing all bounds: indulgences of hundreds or even thousands of years. In 1392, more than a century before Martin Luther published the 95 Theses, Pope Boniface IX wrote to the Bishop of Ferrara condemning the practice of certain members of religious orders who falsely claimed that they were authorized by the pope to forgive all sorts of sins, and exacted money from the simple-minded among the faithful by promising them perpetual happiness in this world and eternal glory in the next.
An engraving by Israhel van Meckenem of the Mass of Saint Gregory contained a "bootlegged" indulgence of 20,000 years; one of the copies of this plate (not the one illustrated, but also from the 1490s) was altered in a later state to increase it to 45,000 years. The indulgences applied each time a specified collection of prayers - in this case seven each of the Creed, Our Father, and Hail Mary - were recited in front of the image. The image of the Mass of Saint Gregory had been especially associated with large indulgences since the Jubilee Year of 1350 in Rome, when it was at least widely believed that an indulgence of 14,000 years had been granted for praying in the presence of the Imago Pietatis ("Man of Sorrows"), a popular pilgrimage destination in the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome.