The phrase auto de fe (
Act of Faith) 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). The phrase also commonly occurs in English in its Portuguese form auto da fé.
While the torture, the trial, and the testimony of the Inquisition were conducted in complete secrecy, the auto de fé ceremony was generally held over several hours with great pomp in a principal church or central square, in the presence of the chief dignitaries and great crowds. Such an auto de fé was called Auto público general. At the Auto particular only the inquisitors were present. 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). Other types of autos de fé were Auto singular, involving one individual, and the Autillo, which was held on the site of the Inquisition, in the presence of the Inquisitors and some special guests. The Inquisition imposed a variety of punishments, ranging from imprisonment, confiscation of property, and death.
Artistic representations of the auto de fe usually depict torture and the burning at the stake. However, 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 burning of heretics did not strictly form part of the auto da fé, since the church did not desire to be formally associated with the shedding of blood. Those adjudged guilty were instead
relaxed (i.e., handed over) to the secular authorities who were responsible for their execution at the place of burning (quemadero), sometimes outside the town.
The condemned persons were dressed in special garb, the sanbenito. A procession was formed which moved to the location of the auto de fé. A feature of the autos was the delivery of vituperative sermons by some eminent cleric; these were frequently published and 70 are extant that were delivered in Portugal alone between 1612 and 1749. In Portugal the programs of the autos with names of those who appeared in them (listas) were published in uniform quarto form: in Spain, less regularly, and mainly in octavo.
The first recorded auto de fe was held in Paris in 1242, under Louis IX (Stavans 2005:xxxiv). 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.
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 latest auto In Spain was recorded in Valencia in 1826. 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.
All told, some 2,000 autos took place in the Peninsula and its dependencies between these two dates. The total number of those who appeared runs into hundreds of thousands, many of whom were however charged with offenses carrying less stringent penalties, such as bigamy. Those who suffered the death penalty have been reckoned at upward of 30,000. These however, include not only Marranos and Crypto-Jews, but also Protestants, Crypto-Muslims, and others.
H.C. Lea, History of the Inquisition of Spain, 4 vols. (1906–08); E.N. Adler, Auto de fé and Jew (1908); Glaser, in: HUCA, 27 (1956), 327–85; Shunami, Bibl, nos. 1392, 2435–36, 2478; Roth, Marranos, passim.[ (2nd ed.)]