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John F. Chuchiak IV, Ph.D.

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Honors College
Missouri State University
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The Act of Faith & Public Sentencing

 

The Purpose of an Auto de Fe.

 The Inquisition and the secular authorities in New Spain publicly administered all definitive sentences at a formal function called an auto-da-fé, most often held on a particular Sunday. The Inquisition celebrated its "act of faith" with great pomp and ceremony, in the only public action in an otherwise secret tribunal. The Inquisition held these acts of faith in a large plaza and required all of the secular and ecclesiastical officials and the general populace to attend. The purpose of the gathering was to observe the procession of penanced, reconciled, and relaxed heretics and hear the announcement of the verdict of their individual sentences. Although the reading of the convicted heretics' sentences remained the main attraction, many other activities occurred at an auto-da-fé. Together, they served to manifest the power of the Catholic religion and to reinforce religious orthodoxy.. 

The Preparations for the Ceremony 

The preparations for an auto-da-fé began once the Inquisition had collected a significant number of reconciled and relaxed heretics. The ceremony most often occurred on a special feast day or coincided with another solemn religious holy day that served to bring together the largest viewing public possible. The formal preparations began with an official convocation and announcement of the event. Inquisitors ordered a formal procession through the major streets of Mexico City by the Inquisition's many familiars and notaries, who proclaimed the upcoming date of the ceremony and invited the public to attend the event with promises of gaining plenary indulgences and other spiritual benefits Carpenters and laborers then began constructing platforms, stages, and stadium-style seating, as well as the benches, tables, and other furniture the ceremony required. The project also included a specialized covered platform for the preferential seating of the inquisitors and other official guests. The Inquisition in New Spain often spent lavish sums of money to stage these celebrations, and the job often took the carpenters and laborers more than a month to complete. During the final weeks and days before the scheduled event, several other important activities occurred. 

The Order of Events during the Ceremony

Before dawn on the day of the auto-da-fé, the Inquisition's prison officials and notaries prepared the prisoners and convicted heretics for their public procession. The officials ordered and dressed the penitents or reconciled heretics in their appropriate garments of shame, which they would wear throughout the ceremony. Afterward, the jailer and other officials arranged the prisoners in their positions for the solemn procession of the penitents, which would traverse the most prominent streets of the city to the main plaza. 

The Public Procession of the Penitents

The procession began at the doorway of the Inquisition's palace, located on the plaza of Santo Domingo, and worked its way toward the central plaza. At the front of the procession, the inquisitors marched with their crucifix, whose black veil symbolized that Christ was in mourning for the heretics. The prisoners were escorted and guarded by the inquisitorial militia, and each was accompanied by two familiars of the Inquisition. The general procession and files of the penitents followed a specific order. In the first place, the inquisitors marched all of the penitent heretics who received sentences of penance. The penanced marched with their heads uncovered, wearing their sanbenitos, each according to the style of public abjuration they were expected to make. The penitent heretics also marched carrying a lighted green candle as a sign of their hope for. Those who were sentenced to receive the punishment of public flogging also had a knotted noose or cord around their neck as a sign that they would receive lashes or go to the galleys. In the second place came the reconciled heretics dressed in their own sanbenitos with the full Saint Andrew's crosses on the front and back. They also wore the conical dunce caps of shame with similar insignia. Next came the procession of those heretics sentenced with relaxation to the secular arm, that is, those condemned to receive the death penalty. They too wore the conical coroza, or fool's hat, and their sanbenitos not only contained the full Saint Andrew's cross but were also painted with flames and demons as a symbol of their ultimate fate: being burned alive. Finally, there came the statues or effigies of those heretics tried and convicted in absentia, along with the cadavers or bones of those deceased who had been tried for heresy posthumously. 

The Opening Sermon of the Faith (Sermón de fe)

A sermon, usually by a prominent or prestigious religious cleric, began the ceremony of an auto-da-fé. The Inquisition in New Spain usually selected great orators and passionate speakers to deliver these sermons. For instance, on November 15, 1573, at the first auto-da-fé celebrated in New Spain, the newly consecrated bishop of Yucatan, Fray Diego de Landa, presided. One of the earliest monastic inquisitors in the Yucatan Peninsula, Bishop Landa delivered an hour-long sermon on the evils of heresy and the necessity of punishment for the wicked and impenitent. A solemn and formal celebration of the Catholic mass followed the sermon.  

The Reading of the Heretics' Sentences

The culmination of the celebration focused on the formal reading of the official sentences against the heretics by the Inquisition's notary and his assistants. The senior inquisitor began the event with the ringing of a ceremonial bell, which was a signal to the notary and the chief constable to begin the reading of the sentences. The formal reading and proclamation of the crimes and sentences of the convicted heretics took most of the rest of the day. The notaries and inquisitors had the sentences proclaimed in the order of the gravity of their crimes. The readings began with the sentences of those penanced for suspicions of minor crimes and heresy. One by one, the penanced heretics came up to a raised platform in the center of the stage and had their crimes and sentences read by the notary before the gaze of the entire town. After the sentences for those penanced, which often took much of the morning, the notary proclaimed the sentences of those reconciled for formal heresy. Again, one by one, the reconciled heretics stepped up to the central box to hear their sentences. Then came the reading of the crimes and sentences of those tried in absentia; those sentenced posthumously had their effigies or bones relaxed to the secular arm to be burned in effigy. The conclusion of the reading of the sentences occurred when those to be relaxed in person had their crimes and sentences read.