Sanbenito (sambenito in Spanish, gramalleta or sambenet in Catalan) was a penitential garment, especially during the Spanish Inquisition, similar to a scapular either yellow with red St. Andrew's crosses for penitent heretics or black and decorated with friars, dragons and devils for impenitent heretics to wear at an auto da fé (meaning acts of faith).
The heretics, found guilty by the inquisitors, had to walk in the procession wearing the sambenito, the coroza, the rope around the neck, and in their hands a yellow wax candle. The tunic of yellow cloth reaching down to the knees of the wearer, with figures of monks, dragons, and demons in the act of augmenting flames, signifies that the heretic is impenitent and is condemned to burn at the stake. If an impenitent is converted just before the procession, then the sanbenito is painted with the flames downward, which is called fuego repolto, and it means that the heretic is not to be burnt alive at the stake, but to have the mercy of being strangled before the fire is applied to the stake.
The third type of penitential garment was for those who repented before they were sentenced. It was a simple yellow scapulary with a red cross, and a conical cap, dominated coroza, which was formed of the same material as the sanbenito, and decorated with similar crosses but no paintings, figures, or flames, and the wearer is only to do penance. The sanbenito should not be confused with the yellow robes worn by some monks; which are also garments related to penitence and which is one reason that caused the Inquisition to prefer common woollen dyed yellow with red crosses for the sambenito. Such were the penitential robes in 1514, when Cardinal Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros replaced the common crosses with those of Saint Andrew. The inquisitors afterwards designated a different tunic for each class of penitents.
Originally the penitential garments were hung up in the churches as mementos of disgrace to their wearers, and as the trophies of the Holy Inquisition. The lists of the punished were also called sambenitos. The bearers of the surnames of those listed in the church of Santo Domingo in Palma de Mallorca were discriminated against as xuetas (the local name for Converso Jews), even when those surnames were also born by Old Christians and the surnames of other Majorcan Judaizers were not preserved at the cathedral.
In Spanish, San Benito means "Saint Benedict". An alternative etymology by Covarrubias and former editions of DRAE has it from saco bendito ("blessed sack"). Américo Castro "proved that it does not come from saco bendito".
González Obregon describes the three basic types of tunics used to distinguish those being punished by the Inquisition. These were the Samarra, Fuego revolto, and the Sambenito. The Samarra was used by those condemned to death, frequently through the burning at the stake; it featured painted dragons, devils, and flames amongst which the image of the prisoner could be distinguished. The Fuego revolto was used for those who had repented. The flames would be painted downwards, thus indicating that they had escaped death through fire. Finally there was the Sambenito used commonly by those in penitence and which featured the cross of Saint Andrew, eventually became known to designate all three types.
Other garments worn by the prisoners included pointed hats, rosaries, and green or yellow candles.
In popular culture
- sambenito at the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española.[dead link]
- Swimming the Christian Atlantic: Judeoconversos, Afroiberians and Amerindians in the Seventeenth Century, Jonathan Schorsch, BRILL, 2009, pag 99
- sanbenito in Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary.
- Américo Castro, Revista de Filología Española, XV, 179-80. Quoted in santo, Diccionario Crítico Etimológico Castellano e Hispánico, volume 5, page 155, Joan Corominas and José A. Pascual, Editorial Gredos, 1991, ISBN 84-249-0879-1.
- González Obregon, Luis. Època Colonial, México Viejo, Noticias Históricas, Tradiciones, Leyendas y Costumbres, Editorial Patria, S.A. 1945, 107-108.