Autos sacramentales (Spanish auto, "act" or "ordinance"; sacramental, "sacramental, pertaining to a sacrament") are a form of dramatic literature which is peculiar to Spain, though in some respects similar in character to the old Morality plays of England.
The auto sacramental may be defined as a dramatic representation of the mystery of the Eucharist. At least this is the definition that would apply to the auto of the time of Calderón. It does not so well fit, however, those of the preceding century, many of which were sacramental in character only because they were presented during the feast of Corpus Christi. They are usually allegorical, the characters representing, for example, Faith, Hope, Air, Sin, Death, etc. There were some indeed, in which not a single human character appeared, but personifications of the Virtues, the Vices, the Elements, etc.
As early as the 13th century religious exhibitions had been popular with the masses in Spain. These usually took the form of simple dialogue, and were presented during religious festivals, for instance, at Christmas and Easter. But it is not until the beginning of the 16th century that we have the first true auto sacramental having for its theme the mystery of the Eucharist. It was El Auto de San Martin, by Gil Vicente. During the 16th and 17th centuries these Autos continued to appear, being gradually improved and elaborated until brought to their highest state of development by Calderón.
The auto sacramental was always presented in the streets in connection with the celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi. It was preceded by a solemn procession through the principal streets of the city, the houses along the route being decorated in honour of the occasion. In the procession appeared the priests bearing the Host under a splendid canopy, followed by a devout throng, in which, in Madrid, often appeared the king and his court without distinction of rank, and last of all, in beautiful cars, came the actors from the public theatres who were to take part in the performance. The procession usually halted before the house of some dignitary while the priests performed certain religious ceremonies, the multitude kneeling meanwhile as if in church. At the conclusion of these, the auto was given. These performances, and the procession as well, were given with much splendour and at great expense, being limited only by the resources of the particular town in which they took place.
Of the better known writers of this kind of dramatic literature may be mentioned Juan de la Enzina and Gil Vicente, who wrote in the 15th and 16th centuries, while among those who wrote autos when they were at the height of their success was Lope de Vega, who composed no fewer than four hundred. Very few of these are now extant. Among his best are The Harvest and The Wolf turned Shepherd. Then came Montalván, whose Polyphemus was his best known auto; Valdivielso, who wrote The Prodigal Son; and lastly, the most successful of all, Calderón.
Although not as prolific as Lope de Vega, Calderón has left about seventy autos, the best known of which are The Divine Orpheus, a work of considerable poetic merit, The Devotion to the Mass, and The Captivity of the Ark. These autos sacramentales produced a great effect on the people. From time immemorial, allegory of every kind had powerfully appealed to them, and these autos took a strong hold on the popular favour, coming as they did during religious festivals, with their music and their splendour, coupled with the fact that they were given at public expense and with the sanction of the Catholic church. In 1765, their public representation was forbidden by Charles III, but the habits of centuries could not be so easily overcome, and for many years afterward they continued to be presented in some of the smaller towns.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Autos Sacramentales". Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.