The phrase auto de fe refers to the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates that took place when the Spanish Inquisition or the Portuguese Inquisition had decided their punishment (that is, after the trial). Auto de fe in medieval Spanish means "act of faith". The phrase also commonly occurs in English in its Portuguese form auto da fé.
The 'auto-de-fe' involved: a Catholic Mass; prayer; a public procession of those found guilty; and a reading of their sentences (Peters 1988: 93-94). They took place in public squares or esplanades and lasted several hours: ecclesiastical and civil authorities attended. Artistic representations of the auto de fe usually depict torture and the burning at the stake. However, this type of activity never took place during an auto de fe, which was in essence a religious act. Torture was not administered after a trial concluded, and executions were always held after and separate from the auto de fe (Kamen 1997: 192-213).
The first recorded auto de fe was held in Paris in 1242, under Louis IX (Stavans 2005:xxxiv). The first Spanish auto de fe took place in Seville, Spain, in 1481; six of the men and women that participated in this first religious ritual were later executed. The Inquisition enjoyed limited power in Portugal, having been established in 1536 and officially lasting until 1821, although its influence was much weakened with the government of the Marquis of Pombal, in the second half of the 18th century. Autos de fe also took place in Mexico, Brazil and Peru: contemporary historians of the Conquistadors such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo have recorded them. They also occurred in the Portuguese colony of Goa, India, following the establishment of Inquisition there in 1562-1563.