Auto-da-fé (1853), by Eugenio Lucas Velázquez (1817-70)

Auto de fe (1853), by Eugenio Lucas Velázquez (1817-70)




This noun is from the obsolete Portuguese form auto da fé (now auto de fé), literally meaning act of faith, composed, after Spanish auto de fe, of the noun auto, meaning public ceremony, judicial decree, writ, the preposition da, of the, and the noun , faith.

(In Portuguese and Spanish, auto, from Latin actus, is a doublet of acto.)

An auto-da-fé was originally a religious ceremony demonstrating commitment to Catholicism held by the Spanish or Portuguese Inquisition prior to the punishment of prisoners, such as blasphemers, bigamists and witches, as well as heretics. In The history of the Inquisition, as it is exercised at Goa (1688), a translation of Relation de l’Inquisition de Goa (1687) by Gabriel Dellon (born 1649), Henry Wharton (1664-95), Church of England clergyman and historian, wrote:

The Auto dafe, or Act of Faith was ordinarily performed the first Sunday in Advent, because on that day is read in the Church that part of the Gospel, wherein mention is made of the last Judgment, and that the Inquisitors pretend, by this Ceremony, to make a Lively and Natural representation of it.

The word was also applied to the execution of a sentence of the Inquisition. In the most serious cases the punishments extended to burning at the stake. The first recorded auto-da-fé was held in Seville in 1481. The Present State of Europe: or, the Historical and Political Monthly Mercury of January 1697 contains the following:

The Auto da Fe, so lately put in Execution in Portugal, is not so remarkable as one that was Solemniz’d some time since. For besides several Persons of both Sexes that were then burnt, they likewise burnt an English Mare, that had been shown about all over Europe, having been taught to tell what a Clock it was, by counting the Numbers of the Hour, upon shewing her a Watch, with several other Apish Tricks of the same Nature, which are easily taught those Creatures, without the help of Magick. Nevertheless, for these little Tricks, the simple Inquisitors were so foolish as to take her for a Witch, .and it cost her her Life. For as such a one they seiz’d her, clapp’d her up in one of their Prisons, put her in Irons , and in the next Auto da Fe, led her in Procession, and then burnt her. Many People were earnest Solicitors for her Pardon, but all in vain. An old Inquisitor made Answer, That though the Mare were no Witch, yet she deserv’d to be burnt, because she was a Lutheran. Perhaps this Story may have been embellish’d ; but it is as likely that it may be true ; for the most part of the Inquisitors are as Ignorant as they are Cruel and Savage. We have lately seen a Horse that did the same Tricks as the Mare ; but I advise the Master not to expose his Horse at Lisbon.

By the second half of the 18th century, auto-da-fé had taken the figurative sense of a burning of material considered offensive, subversive, or heretical. The Parliamentary Register; or History of the proceedings and debates of the House of Commons of 1794 contains the following translation of an address delivered to the French convention in October 1792 by one of its members, a certain Julien of Toulouse:

For twenty years I have exercised the functions of a protestant minister. I declare that I renounce them for ever. In every religion there is more or less of quackery (great applauses.) It is glorious to be able to make this declaration under the auspices of reason, of philosophy, and of that sublime constitution which has already overturned the errours [sic] of superstition and monarchy in France, and which now prepares a similar fate for all foreign tyrannies. I declare that I will no longer enter into any other temple than the sanctuary of the laws; that I will acknowledge no other god than liberty, no other worship than that of my country, no other gospel than the republican constitution: such is my profession of moral and political faith. I shall cease to be a minister of the protestant church; but I shall think myself equally bound to advise, exhort, and instruct my fellow-citizens in the jacobin clubs, and in the publick squares; there I will preach, and there I will inspire them with the love of liberty and equality. I will soon lay upon the table my letters of ordination, of which I hope you will have the kindness to make an auto da fe.

The word also took the figurative sense of a public humiliation, condemnation or punishment, especially by a mob. In Observations on the Appeal from the new to the old Whigs (1792), the English poet Brooke Boothby (1744-1824) wrote, about Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), by the Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97):

The authour of the Reflections and the high church party proclaim the church and king in danger and the fires of Birmingham are lighted up. A few dissenters and republicans endeavour to shew that our religious and civil liberties are incomplete and they cannot meet to dine at a tavern without danger of assassination. One man eminent above the rest for his virtues and useful talents stands particularly charged with the horrible crime of propagating religious tenets abominably tolerant and civil opinions shockingly too favourable to the bulk of mankind. He is marked out by these loyal and orthodox incendiaries. His property is pillaged, his dwelling burnt and his person hunted for. If the chase had been successful these bloodhounds might not perhaps have eaten their game because such a repast is not to the taste of an English mob; but they would certainly have consummated their auto da fé by hanging him up in terrour to all future philosophers.

The shortened form auto was also used. In A full, ample and punctuall discouery of the barbarous, bloudy, and inhumane practises of the Spanish Inquisition, against Protestants (1568), a translation of Sanctae Inquisitionis Hispanicae artes aliquot detectae, ac palam traductae (1567) by Raimundo González de Montes, the English politician Vincent Skinner (1543-1616) wrote:

There remaineth now the last Act of the Tragedy, wᶜʰ is the very winding vp of all that is to be done in this holy Court. Wherein both parties are pleased, & haue their desire. The Inquisitours in obtayning their prey: the prisoners seeing the terrible and continuall torments, the subtill sleights and practices of the Inquisitours, with their extream and cruell dealings, grow to an end. For then doe they heare their finall iudgements after their matters haue been tossed to and fro many yeares in open Court, and in so great an audience and assembly, as there hath not been seen a greater, no not at Olimpus it self. This Act of Faith they commonly called Auto. And surely good cause why. For then is the prisoners faith tried to the vttermost, and sheweth it selfe what it is, either by denying and abiuring Gods truth in open and solemne audience, or else by standing stoutly and manfully therein, in like solemnity of shew and view of all the people, thronging together purposely. Let the inquisitours therfore deriue the word, and descant of it as they please: we doo construe it thus, as in a sence most agreeable to Gods iudgement.

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