15 Brutal Facts About Auto De Fe, The Inquisition's Public Torture Ceremony

What was the auto de fé? Beginning in Spain at the end of the 15th century, the auto de fé was a religious and civic spectacle. The phrase literally means "act of faith," and the auto de fé was the climax of an Inquisition tribunal. In short, it was the moment of public penance, torture, and sometimes even death that heretics underwent if and when convicted of heresy. Facts about the auto de fé reveal a peculiar, cruel ceremony not so dissimilar from other forms of strange and slow forms of historical torture. Though most people think of brimstone and flames when they imagine punishment during the Spanish Inquisition, the auto de fé was not only about burning condemned men and women at the stake. 

While many people associate the auto de fé with the Spanish Inquisition, it is important to note that autos de fé were not practiced exclusively in Spain. Portugal, France, and European colonies around the world also enacted autos de fé. In many cases, actually, the colonies outdid Europe in scope. And, unlike other forms of torture and penance, they didn't focus specifically on women with the auto de fé.

Autos de fé were practiced for a length of time that might surprise some people. But the stories of horror and tragedy that autos de fé brought are not going away any time soon, and neither is the multitude of torture-in-art works that they inspired.

  • It Was People's Favorite Form Of Theater

    It Was People's Favorite Form Of Theater
    Photo: Francisco Rizzi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The auto de fé was the final stage of Inquisition proceedings. Though secrecy was paramount to the Inquisition trial stages leading up to the auto de fé, that was all abandoned on the day of the main event. Indeed, it was a form of public spectacle in which crowds of people turned up in city squares to watch the sentencing and punishment get carried out. As the ritual continued into the 17th century, the theater and spectacle of the auto de fé became even more elaborate, and common folks would eagerly read (or listen to) accounts of autos de fé they might've missed. 

  • Some Of It Involved People Being Burned Alive

    Perhaps the most extreme sentencing a person could receive during his or her very public auto de fé was burning. Being burned alive was a horribly painful, gruesome way to die - but it also attracted spectators who were hungry for a show. In Logroño, Spain, in 1610, six condemned witches were burned alive, making it the largest witch burning of the Spanish Inquisition. Historians remain divided over exact numbers, but they generally agree that around 3,000 people were burned alive as a result of an auto de fé. Some people were lucky: they were condemned to be burnt in effigy rather than in body. 

  • Torture (Including Having Your Limbs And Head Cut Off) Was Common

    Torture (Including Having Your Limbs And Head Cut Off) Was Common
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    Torture was definitely a part of the Inquisition process. Though it was controversial, it was within the rights of Inquisitors to use torture as a way to extract a confession during a trial. But the accused's suffering did not end when the trial did. The auto de fé - the final stage of an Inquisition trial - presented yet another opportunity for torture. If an accused person wasn't burned alive or sentenced to life in prison, a range of other punishments was possible. Some people were whipped and tortured in other brutal ways.

    One of the most disturbing sentences happened in 1766, when the 19-year-old François-Jean de la Barre was sentenced to have his tongue and arm cut off before being burnt alive. Though his sentence was ultimately commuted to beheading and burning, it was still an outrage to people like Voltaire, who used the event to criticize the Catholic Church.

  • It Happened All Around The World

    It Happened All Around The World
    Photo: A.B. Greene / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The origin of the phrase "auto-da-fé" speaks to where the ritual was developed: it's Portuguese and means "act of faith," as does the Spanish version, "auto de fé." In the early modern world, Portugal and Spain were expanding their global reach and colonizing the so-called "New World." So the Inquisition and autos de fé spread to the Americas where they fit in nicely with Spain's missionary projects in North and South America. Autos de fé sprung up everywhere from Mexico City to Lima. But autos de fé weren't just in the Americas - Goa even had its own Inquisition from 1560 to 1812.

  • The Last Auto De Fé Was In 1850 In Mexico

    The Last Auto De Fé Was In 1850 In Mexico
    Photo: Jan Luykens / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Autos de fé may have been a product of the early modern world, but they outlasted it. The autos de fé developed in the late 15th and 16th centuries, and the Enlightenment of the 18th century slowed them down a little bit in some parts of the world. But they actually continued well into the 19th century. Though the Inquisition in Mexico was abolished in 1820, there is a record of an auto de fé there as late as 1850

  • Hundreds Of Thousands Of People Probably Went Through It

    It is difficult to estimate the exact number of people who had to suffer through an auto de fé. Enactment of autos de fé varied by location and time. Some autos de fé were larger and more frenzied than others. But historians generally agree that in the heyday of the auto de fé, hundreds of thousands of people had to go through the dangerous, harmful, and humiliating ritual - and only the lucky ones survived.