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Humanities Content of the Auto de Fe of 1601 Project


The Humanities are academic disciplines that seek to understand and interpret the human experience, from individuals to entire cultures, engaging in the discovery, preservation, and communication of the past and present record to enable a deeper understanding of contemporary society by revealing how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of the world.


One of the primary goals of this project is to emphasize the relevance of humanistic and historical scholarship on religious intolerance in the past for contemporary debates over modern issues relating to religious and racial persecution. 


By means of our project’s examination of the nature of religious intolerance and persecution through the lens of the story of one young Jewish woman’s ordeal and forced participation in the auto de fe of 1601, we propose to explore ways of creating empathy, encouraging tolerance and mutual understanding, through this historical simulation for modern audiences in order to counter increasing recent issues of anti-Semitism and other alarming trends of religious intolerance.


At the same time, this project will also utilize what Richard White and others have called the “spatial-turn” in the digital humanities to examine the spatial nature of both the auto de fe and the distribution and use of public space in 17th century Mexico City.[1]


The auto de fe, or “act of faith,” in English, served as the most elaborate public spectacle in what was otherwise the most private and secretive actions of an Inquisitorial Tribunal.  At these massive public ceremonies that had illustrative, punitive, and didactic purposes, the Spanish Inquisition announced the sentences and punishments of those convicted heretics it sentenced and condemned. 


Although most previous scholars have identified these autos de fe as ostensibly a form of religious ritual, more recent scholarship in the humanities has begun to understand that the Spanish Inquisition’s auto de fe ceremonies served not only religious, but also political, cultural and didactic purposes.[2]  Combining the politics of both the secular and the religious, as well as imbuing the ceremony with hierarchical and political messages concerning the nature and structure of social and racial hierarchies, the inquisitorial auto de fe served not only to warn the Catholic faithful of the dangers of heresy, but it also served to delineate the proper hierarchical social and cultural spaces of what the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown believed were the ideal nature of the proper order of Spanish colonial society.[3]


Our challenge, therefore, is to also re-imagine how these sermons and public sentences, as social and political, as well as religious gatherings, functioned to bring together church, state, and people for punishment, instruction, inspiration, and the creation of a common identity formation. 


The project will also provide detailed information about 17th century architecture, dress, religious symbolism, and common processionary procedure of the time period, all of which will enhance our current knowledge of the human experience of life in 17th century New Spain.






[1] For a good discussion of the “spatial turn” in digital humanities see Richard White, “What is Spatial History?” (Stanford University, Spatial History Project, 2010).


[2] For the major historiography on the Auto de Fe see Francisco Bethencourt, “The Auto de Fe: Ritual and Imagery.” Journal of Warburg and Courtald Institutes Vol. 55 (1992): 155-168; Alejandro Caneque, “Theater of Power: Writing and Representing the Auto de Fe in Colonial Mexico” The Americas Vol. 52, No. 3 (Jan. 1996): 321-343; as well as Maureen Flynn, “Mimesis of the Last Judgment.” Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 22, No. 2 (1991): 281-297.


[3] For best discussion of the symbolism and significance of public spectacle in colonial Mexico see Linda Curcio Nagy, Great Festivals of Colonial Mexico City: Performing Power and Identity, University of New Mexico Press, 2004

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