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An auto-da-fé (also auto da fé and auto de fe) was 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, followed by the execution by the civil authorities of the sentences imposed. Both auto de fe in medieval Spanish and auto da fé in Portuguese mean "act of faith".
As execution by burning was more memorable than the penance which preceded it, in popular use the term came to mean the burning rather than the penance.
The first recorded auto-da-fé was held in Paris in 1242, under Louis IX. The first Spanish auto-da-fé took place in Seville, Spain, in 1481; six of the men and women who participated in this first religious ritual were later executed.
In 1478 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had received permission from Pope Sixtus IV to name Inquisitors throughout their domain, to protect Catholicism as the true faith. They immediately began establishing permanent trials and developing bureaucracies to carry out investigations in most cities and communities in their empire. Later Franciscan missionaries brought the Inquisition to the New World where it clashed with Iberian Catholicism and Native religious beliefs. Inquisitors were required to hear and record all testimonies. A major aspect of the tribunals was the auto-da-fé.
The auto-da-fé involved a Catholic Mass, prayer, a public procession of those found guilty, and a reading of their sentences. The ritual took place in public squares or esplanades and lasted several hours with ecclesiastical and civil authorities in attendance. Artistic representations of the auto-da-fé usually depict torture and the burning at the stake. The defendant at the trial did not know what witnesses would be called against him.
The exact number of people executed by the Inquisition is not known. Juan Antonio Llorente, the ex-secretary of the Holy Office, gave the following numbers for the Spanish Inquisition excluding the American colonies, Sicily and Sardinia: 31,912 burnt, 17,696 burned in effigy, and those reconciled de vehementi 291,450. José Amador de los Ríos gave even higher numbers, stating that only between 1484 and 1525, 28,540 were burned in person, 16,520 burned in effigy and 303,847 penanced. However, modern scholars provide more moderate estimates, indicating that fewer than 10,000 were actually executed during the whole operation of the Spanish Inquisition, perhaps only around 3,000.
The Portuguese Inquisition was established in 1536 and lasted officially until 1821. Its influence was much weakened by the late 18th century under the government of the Marquês of Pombal. Autos-da-fé also took place in Mexico, Brazil, and Peru. Contemporary historians of the Conquistadors, such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recorded them. They were also held in the Portuguese colony of Goa, India, following the establishment of the Inquisition there in 1562–1563.
The auto-da-fé usually began with the public proclamation of a grace period of 40 days. Anyone who was guilty or knew of someone who was guilty was urged to confess. If they were approached and charged they were then presumed guilty, and since the suspects were not allowed to look at the evidence against them, they could only assume the worst. The auto-da-fé was not an impromptu event, but one which was thoroughly orchestrated. Preparations began a month in advance and only occurred when the inquisition authorities believed there were enough prisoners in a given community or city. Bordering the city's plaza, an all-night vigil would be held with prayers, ending in Mass at daybreak and a breakfast feast prepared for all who joined in.
The trial then officially began with a procession of prisoners, who bore elaborate visual symbols on their garments and bodies. These symbols were called sanbenito, and were made of yellow sackcloth. They served to identify the specific acts of treason of the accused, whose identities were kept secret until the very last moment. In addition, most of the time the prisoners had no idea what the outcome of their trial was going to be. The auto-da-fé was also a form of penitence for the public viewers, because they too were engaging in a process of reconciliation and by being involved were given the chance to confront their sins and be forgiven by the Church. The trials concluded when the prisoners were taken outside the city walls to a place called the quemadero or burning place. There the prisoners who were forgiven would fall on their knees in thanksgiving.
The auto-da-fé, usually represented as a heretic being burned at the stake, is a symbol used widely in the arts, especially in Europe.