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Saint Dominic anachronistically presiding over an auto-da-fé, by Pedro Berruguete (around 1495)[1]

An auto-da-fé (from Portuguese auto da fé [ˈaw.tu dɐ ˈfɛ], meaning 'act of faith') was the ritual of public penance carried out between the 15th and 19th centuries of condemned heretics and apostates imposed by the Spanish, Portuguese, or Mexican Inquisition as punishment and enforced by civil authorities. Its most extreme form was death by burning.


From the 8th to the 15th centuries, much of Spain was controlled by Muslims, where Jews and Christians were given dhimmis status. This meant that they were required to pay a special tax, the jizya, for a “protection” intended, as Islamic legal texts indicate, to remind them of their submission. The tax was imposed on the "people of the Book", as Jews and Christians were known, to humble them.[2][3] While at times, those who were Jewish could rise to important positions in the political structure, instances of anti-Jewish sentiment erupted, such as the 1066 Granada massacre in which much of the Jewish population of Granada were killed by a Muslim mob.[4][5][6]

The treatment of religious minorities varied depending on the era. For example, during their time of ascendance, the Almohads assumed the title of caliph, introduced a series of severe religious measures, and sought to strengthen their states through religious unification, which means compelling the Jews and Christians to either convert to Islam or be expelled.[7] Around the 11th century, growing suspicions of Jews prompted Christians to unite against the Muslims and Jews. From that point, Spain became a political soup of different powers and territories, each with their own policies regarding the status of Jews and Muslims. Eventually the Christians won out and by the 13th century, they ruled all of Spain except a few territories to the south that were still occupied by Muslims. Ferdinand III of Castile boasted himself as the king of three religions.[citation needed] This tolerant pride, however, did not last long.

In the 14th century, Dominican and Franciscan priests called on Christians to expel the Jews from Spain. They would go from town to town in the countryside and convince Spaniards that the root of their plight lies with the abuse and villainy of the Jewish population.[citation needed] These bands of subjects would destroy synagogues, burn Jews alive, and spared nobody unless they converted. Jews would be forced to attend sermons and have Christian preachers outline what the Christians viewed as the errors of their ways.[citation needed]

From there, Spain's favor shifted completely to their Christian subjects and policy began to negatively affect the Jews. New laws segregated the Jewish population and limited the occupations that were still open to them, with the ultimate goal of conversion. The pressure was so much that more than 100,000 Jews converted. Once converted, these New Christians joined the "conversos" class, who were afforded the legal and social privileges of a full Christian in society. Many New Christians took advantage of their elevation in status and embraced Christian privileges rather than ignored them. After a few generations, the converted Jews identified as nothing more or less than "regular" Christians. It seemed as though Spain had achieved what it wanted; they had a uniform Christian majority within their kingdom.[citation needed]

This uniformity, however, brought with it new versions of anxiety and fear concerning the conversos. With the entire corpus of anti-Jewish legislation no longer applicable, “The mistrust of the Jew as an outsider gave way to an even more alarming fear of the converso as an insider.”[citation needed] Up until the Jews converted, the differences between religious classes were very clear. Laws and customs aimed at guaranteeing Christian "superiority" in Spain afforded Christian subjects the comfort of knowing there was uniform hatred among Christians for the Jewish people. They could identify Jews in society and ostracize them while continuing to feel safe among their own people. Once the Jews converted, however, there were no longer clear divisions between what Christians regarded as the "morally upstanding" Christians and the "villainous" Jews. Many Christian Spaniards believed that they no longer knew whom they could trust and who could possibly be a treacherous heretic at heart.[citation needed]

In an attempt to assuage these fears, Limpieza de sangre (Purity of Blood) laws were put in place that traced the bloodline of Christians New and Old to see if they had Jewish ancestry. In doing so, Spain divided its Christian class along ethnic and religious lines, "othering" those with Jewish blood much as they had prior to conversion. The prejudice behind this method of vetting was that conversos had Jewish blood in their veins and therefore, from the Christians' perspective, they likely held many of the same stereotypical faults of the Jewish people. Influential Christians believed that there was something different in the essence and soul of the person that could not be cured by religious conversion. With these laws came the resurgence of accusations of blood libel, devil worship, and other perceived crimes against the New Christians.[citation needed]

On 1 November 1478, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile received permission from Pope Sixtus IV to name inquisitors throughout their domains in order to protect Catholicism as the one true Christian faith. It originally applied to the Crown of Castile—the domain of Isabella—but in 1483 Ferdinand extended it to his domain of the Crown of Aragon. Autos-da-fé became quite popular throughout the Spanish realm, competing with bullfights for the public's attention and attended by royalty.[8]:245 Though Ferdinand's action met with occasional resistance and resulted in the assassination of the inquisitor Pedro de Arbués by converted Jews in 1485, in years between 1487 and 1505 the Barcelona chapter recorded processing and trying more than 1,000 heretics, of whom only 25 were ultimately absolved.[9]

An auto-da-fé in Seville, illustration from 1870

Once granted permission from the Pope to conduct inquisitions, the monarchs began establishing permanent trials and developing bureaucracies to carry out investigations in most of the cities and communities in their empire. The first Iberian auto-da-fé took place in Seville in 1481: the six accused were found guilty and executed.[10] Later, Franciscan missionaries brought the Inquisition to the New World.

The exact number of people executed by the Inquisition is not known. Juan Antonio Llorente, the ex-secretary of the Holy Office, gave the following numbers for the Inquisition excluding the American colonies, Sicily and Sardinia: 31,912 burnt, 17,696 burned in effigy, and 291,450 reconciled de vehementi (i.e., following an act of penance).[8]:123 Later in the nineteenth century, José Amador de los Ríos gave even higher numbers, stating that between the years 1484 and 1525 alone, 28,540 were burned in person, 16,520 burned in effigy and 303,847 penanced.[8] However, after extensive examinations of archival records, modern scholars provide lower estimates, indicating that fewer than 10,000 were actually executed during the whole history of the Spanish Inquisition,[11] perhaps around 3,000.[12]

The Portuguese Inquisition was established in 1536 and lasted officially until 1821. Its influence was much weakened by the late 18th century under the government of the Marquês de Pombal.

Autos-da-fé also took place in Goa, New Spain, the State of Brazil, and the Viceroyalty of Peru.[13][14] Contemporary historians of the Conquistadors, such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recorded them. Although records are incomplete, one historian estimates that about 50 people were executed by the Mexican Inquisition.[15]


1683 painting by Francisco Rizi depicting the auto-da-fé held in Plaza Mayor, Madrid in 1680.

The auto-da-fé was a major aspect of the tribunals,[16] and the final step in the Inquisition process. It involved a Catholic Mass, prayer, a public procession of those found guilty, and a reading of their sentences.[17]

An Inquisition usually began with the public proclamation of a grace period of 40 days. Anyone who was guilty or knew of someone who was guilty was urged to confess. If the accused were charged, they were presumed guilty. Officials could apply torture during the trial. Inquisitors were required to hear and record all testimony.[citation needed] Proceedings were to be kept secret, and the identity of witnesses was not known to the accused.

After the trial, officials proclaimed the prisoner's sentence and administered it in an auto-da-fé. The auto-da-fé was not an impromptu event, but thoroughly orchestrated. Preparations began a month in advance and only occurred when the inquisition authorities believed there were enough prisoners in a given community or city. The ritual took place in public squares or esplanades and lasted several hours with ecclesiastical and civil authorities in attendance.[18]

Bordering the city's plaza, an all-night vigil would be held with prayers, ending in Mass at daybreak and a breakfast feast prepared for all who joined in.[19]

The ceremony of public penitence then began with a procession of prisoners, who bore elaborate visual symbols on their garments and bodies. These symbols were called sanbenito, and were made of yellow sackcloth. They served to identify the specific acts of treason of the accused, whose identities were kept secret until the very last moment. In addition, the prisoners usually had no idea what the outcome of their trial had been or their sentencing.[citation needed]

The prisoners were taken outside the city walls to a place called the quemadero or burning place. There the sentences were read. Prisoners who were acquitted or whose sentence was suspended would fall on their knees in thanksgiving,[20] but the condemned would be punished. Artistic representations of the auto-da-fé usually depict physical punishment such as whipping, torture, and burning at the stake.

The auto-da-fé was also a form of penitence for the public viewers, because they too were engaging in a process of reconciliation and by being involved were given the chance to confront their sins and be forgiven by the Church.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

Condemned by the Inquisition wearing a sambenito carrying the cross of St. Andrew (Francisco de Goya).

The auto-da-fé, usually represented as a heretic being burned at the stake, is a symbol used widely in the arts, especially in Europe.

  • Voltaire featured an auto-da-fé held by the people of Lisbon after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake in chapter six of his satire Candide (1759). The university of Coimbra decides that this "great ceremony was an infallible means of preventing the earth from quaking."
  • Edgar Allan Poe – In "The Pit and the Pendulum", Poe uses the auto-da-fé as a reference point for the narrator as he tries to determine what is happening to him.
  • Giuseppe Verdi – In his 1866 opera Don Carlos, Verdi includes a pivotal scene in the third act that depicts the beginning of an auto-da-fé in front of the Cathedral of Valladolid in Spain where heretics are about to be burned at the stake.
  • Herman Melville – In Moby-Dick, near the end of Chapter 54, mentions auto-da-fé in passing: "'Though there are no Auto-da-Fe's in Lima now,' said one of the company to another; 'I fear our sailor friend runs the risk of the archiepiscopacy. Let us withdraw more out of the moonlight. I see no need of this.'" In "The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade" (1857), set on a Mississippi steamboat filled with colorful characters and the Devil himself as the con-man, Melville weaves an allegory on how easily one may win over a person's, or for that matter, an entire people's confidence. The story begins and ends with the appearance of mysterious young men, the latter of whom is described as wearing tattered red and yellow clothes reminiscent of “a victim in auto-da-fe.” The book opens with the words "Dedicated to victims of Auto da Fe."
  • Leonard Bernstein composed and produced a musical adaptation of Voltaire's Candide in 1956, featuring a song called Auto-da-Fé that includes the chorus, "It's a lovely day for drinking and for watching people fry," referring to the spectacle of public executions.
  • Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981 for his work, especially his novel Die Blendung (1935), literally "The Blinding," translated into English as Auto-da-Fé (1946).
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky begins a chapter of The Brothers Karamazov with a "splendid Auto-da-Fé". The chapter is famously called "The Grand Inquisitor".
  • In Thornton Wilder's 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a central character, the friar Brother Juniper, is burned for heresy in an auto-da-fé in early 18th-century Peru. Although the novel is fictional, autos-de-fé did occur in Lima, Peru at least as late as 1733.[21]
  • Tennessee Williams wrote a one-act play entitled Auto-da-Fé (1938).
  • Roger Zelazny wrote a short story, Auto-da-Fé, which appeared in Dangerous Visions, 1967.
  • In Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the final climactic book burning is repeatedly referred to as auto-da-fé.
  • Man of La Mancha, 1965 musical with a book by Dale Wasserman. It tells the story of the "mad" knight Don Quixote as a play within a play, performed by Cervantes and his fellow prisoners as he awaits a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Richard Zimler describes the humiliation and torments of his narrator and an imprisoned Jain in an auto-da-fé in his novel Guardian of the Dawn, which is set in the Portuguese colony of Goa at the beginning of the 17th century.
  • Monty Python The comedy troupe Monty Python has a famous parody of the Spanish Inquisition, with the famous, "no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" from Michael Palin
  • José Saramago goes into detail about an Auto-da-fé in Baltasar and Blimunda (1982).
  • Mel Brooks's cult comedy History of the World, Part I (1981) makes reference to the auto-da-fé in its segment about the Spanish Inquisition.
  • The West Wing episode "7A Wf 83429", the first episode of the fifth season, when referring to a meeting where the Democratic leaders are going to punish them for invoking the 25th, Josh says "Anyone else coming to the auto da fe?"
  • SPK titled their 1983 compilation album Auto Da Fe.
  • In Matthew Lewis's Gothic novel The Monk (1796), madrileño monk Ambrosio barely escapes burning in an auto-da-fé. Convicted of rape and murder (which also turns out to be incest and matricide) he is sentenced to death by burning at the stake. He is rescued last-minute by the intervention of Lucifer only to be left on a precipice in the Sierra Morena mountains. After falling down, insects drink his blood and mountain eagles "tore his flesh piecemeal, and dug out his eye-balls with their crooked beaks" before he perishes.
  • The 2016 film Assassin's Creed depicts an auto-da-fé in 1492 Spain. The sequence involves a parading of the accused and the outcomes of the sentencing.

A Spectacle in Antisemitism[edit]

With a variety of motivations, the Spanish crown wanted to take action that would unite the entire country, with a campaign against the Conversos (converted Jews) offering a convenient target. The autos-da-fé were instrumental in the "re-othering" of the Jews. The campaign perpetuated old stereotypes about Jews. Moreover, by eventually expelling all non-Catholics, Spain was attempting to create a homogenous society, or "One crown under one religion," contrasting with a more tolerant past that had accommodated Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Once the Jews converted and became a part of the conversos class, the crown realized that one of the best tools for unity is a common enemy. In vilifying the New Christian, the crown sought support for its own political agenda. They pushed for the "cleansing" of Spain and the rebirth of what they hoped would be a strong, singular Catholic state. By positioning the crown as the religious and political engine behind the Inquisition, Spain's position on the Jews was cemented. It was an antisemitic state and all those who lived within its borders were supposed to share those same sentiments.

Decades after the initial call for conversion of all Jews in 1492, Spain continued to use the Autos as a unifier of thought. This time, they were attempting to appeal to a crowd that had no personal experience with the conversos class exercising new rights. To them, many of the heretics and Judaizers were people accused of "crimes" who had been Christians for generations. The victims had few, if any, ties to their old Jewish heritage except blood. Making the autos more of a spectacle created a resurgence in antisemitic feelings for a population that had no personal experience with outwardly presenting Jews in society. The accusations and trials were done on the basis of suspicion and anxiety. Nonetheless, it reinforced a cultural aversion to the Jewish identity.

These spectacular productions also sensationalized the rooting out of heresy, making the Jews seem extremely dangerous. For around 2 centuries, Spain's main mission was promoting national identity and removing heresy from their land. By including important dignitaries, special costumes, and bloody torture and execution, the crown was able to turn the Jew into a legendary foe. Likewise, its very violence and spectacle made the work that the Inquisition did seem of the utmost importance to societal preservation. At a time when people felt the corruption of their immortal souls was at stake, removing any perceived danger to the purity of the Christian religion would have been of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, this unity came at the price of the Jewish people.


  1. ^ *[1] at Prado Museum
  2. ^ Fernandez-Morera, Dario (2017), "Life as a dhimmi in medieval Islamic Spain", WNG.
  3. ^ F. Glick, Thomas, Islamic and Christian Spain in the early Middle Ages, Chapter 5: Ethnic relations
  4. ^ Granada by Richard Gottheil, Meyer Kayserling, Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906 ed.
  5. ^ 1971 Jewish Encyclopedia
  6. ^ Solomon ibn Verga, Shevet Yehudah, ed. A. Shochat (1947), p. 22.
  7. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica | URL:
  8. ^ a b c Cecil Roth (1964). The Spanish Inquisition. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-00255-3.ISBN 0-393-00255-1
  9. ^ «La Inquisició» Archived 16 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Històries de Catalunya, TV3, s.d.
  10. ^ Cullen Murphy, God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, pp. 65-69; ISBN 978-0-618-09156-0
  11. ^ Dedieu, p. 85; Perez, pp. 170–173.
  12. ^ Monter, p. 53.
  13. ^ Wojciehowski, Hannah Chapelle (2011). Group Identity in the Renaissance World. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 215–216 with footnotes 98–100. ISBN 978-1-107-00360-6.
  14. ^ Marcus, Jacob Rader (1999). "36". The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315–1791. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press. pp. 202–203. ISBN 0-87820-217-X.
  15. ^ Jose Rogelio Alvarez, ed. "Inquisicion" (in Spanish). Enciclopedia de Mexico. VII (2000 ed.). Mexico City: Sabeca International Investment Corp.. ISBN 1-56409-034-5
  16. ^ Perry, Mary Elizabeth; Cruz, Anne J., eds. (1991). Cultural Encounters: The Impact of the Inquisition in Spain and the New World. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-07098-1.
  17. ^ Peters, Edward. Inquisition. New York: The Free Press, 1988.
  18. ^ Many of the public autos-da-fé were described in contemporary published works listing the dignitaries in attendance, the condemned and their sentences. See, for example, Matias de Bocanegra, Auto general de la fé..., Mexico: 1649
  19. ^ Potter, Robert. The Auto de Fé as Medieval Drama. University of California, Santa Barbara. pp. 110–115.
  20. ^ Potter, Robert. The Auto de Fé as Medieval Drama. University of Santa Barbara. pp. 115–119.
  21. ^ "Relacion del auto de fe" (PDF).
  • Arouet, Francois-Marie (Voltaire) (1758). Candide
  • Dedieu, Jean-Pierre (1987) L'Inquisition. Les Editions Fides
  • Goldstein, Phyllis. A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism. (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012)
  • Kamen, Henry. (1997) The Spanish Inquisition : A Historical Revision. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Lea, Henry Charles (1906–1907). A History of the Inquisition of Spain (4 volumes) - vol.1,vol.2,vol.3,vol.4. New York and London.
  • Monter, William (1990). Frontiers of Heresy. The Spanish Inquisition from the Basque Land to Sicily. Cambridge University Press
  • Perez, Joseph (2006) The Spanish Inquisition: A History, Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-11982-8, ISBN 978-0-300-11982-4
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  • Rawlings, Helen. The Spanish Inquisition: The Historiography of the Inquisition. (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2006).
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  • Stavans, Ilan. (2005) The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature. Random House, Inc. New York
  • Whitechapel, Simon (2003). Flesh Inferno: Atrocities of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition. Creation Books. ISBN 1-84068-105-5
  • Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Assimilation and Racial Anti-Semitism: The Iberian and the German Models. (Leo Baeck Institute, New York Press, 1982).
  • Miscelanea de Zapata, Mem. histórico español: colección de documentos, opúsculos y antigüedades que publica la Real Academia de la Historia (in Spanish, 1851) vol.XI, p.202

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