Un Auto de Fe en el Pueblo de San Bartolome Otzolotepec

By Emmanuel Ortega

Ph.D. Candidate, Colonial Art History, University of New Mexico

In eighteenth-century New Spain, autos-de-fé were theatrical representations of faith performed as a way to openly confront the sins of heretics and to publicly announce their penance. Paintings of these events are among the rarest scenes ever depicted on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite the paucity of images, many written records have survived that describe the nature of autos-de-fé in both Spain and the territories of New Spain. These types of images downplay the presence of the indigenous spectator-participant instead privileging that of the officiators and elite invitees. Significantly, instead of identifying the individual to be executed, auto-de-fé paintings spotlight the members of the Church and the nobility.

Figure 1, 1716
(Figure 1, 1716)

In New Spain, indigenous people accused of idolatry were judged under a different jurisdiction that was independent from the inquisition: the Provisorato de Indios y Chinos (The Provisory of Indians and Chinese People). Gerardo Lara Cisneros explains how in 1539 Bishop Juan de Zumarraga was reprimanded by the Santo Oficio for processing and burning don Chichimecatecuhtli Ometochtzín from Texcoco.1 As a result, the practice of public autos in New Spain was changed; it was to be practiced only upon Jews and heretics judged under the authority of the Inquisition. Un auto de fè en el pueblo de San Bartolomé Otzolotepec,(Figure 1) hereafter referred to as SBO, currently in El Museo Nacional de Arte de México (MUNAL) represents a visual testimony that autos continued to be perpetrated upon central Mexican natives through the eighteenth century.2

Figure 2, 1495
(Figure 2, 1495)

SBO emphasizes the impressive display of power publicly enacted by the Provisorato upon the indigenous populations of central Mexico. In the middle of the painting, a group of six convicted Native heretics stand with their backs to the viewer as unworthy of the spectators’ gaze. The viewers’ attention is guided to this point by the prominent conical hats (corozas), and penitential garments (sambenitos) worn by the condemned. The sambenitos and corozas were an important part of this ritual, since in many cases they were vividly illustrated with representations, and sometimes captioned with, descriptions of the heretics’ sins. On many occasions, and as a form of punishment, the sambenito was to be worn for life, extending the prisoner‘s penitence beyond the auto-de-fè.3 However, once the painting’s textboxes are read, the viewer’s eye is redirected from the composition’s central figures to the ecclesial and local political figures present at the ceremony.

(Figure 3, 1656)

Art historically speaking, SBO belongs to a global history of images of autos that date back to the late thirteenth century. Spanish painter Pedro Berruguete created one of the earliest paintings of autos-de-fé. Unlike subsequent images of autos, St. Dominic Conducting an Auto de fé(Figure 2) displays different episodes of the ceremony: the sentence, the abjuration, and the punishment being executed. By the mid seventeenth-century Spanish artists established a visual language that dominated images of autos for centuries to come. Images like Auto de fe, (Figure 3) Auto de fé en la Plaza de San Francisco by Francisco Herrera (1660), and Francisco Rizi’s famous Auto de Fe en la plaza Mayor de Madrid (Figure 4) favored a view of the elaborate nature of these types of public spectacles by introducing a bird‘s-eye-view of the ceremony. This approach effectively negated the individuality of the victims and simultaneously emphasized the Inquisition’s authority.

(Figure 4, 1686)

The main difference between SBO and its peninsular counterparts is the prominence of the text. The similarities in content and sentence structure between official eighteenth-century accounts of autos-de-fé and the text on the bottom of this image create the notion that this painting is an illustrated account of an actual auto de indios. As such, SBO testifies to the power of the Provisorato of Indios y Chinos in the eighteenth century and the efficacy of this public display of power over local indigenous populations.

1. [Gerardo Lara Cisneros, ¿Ignorancia invencible?: superstición e idolatría ante el Provisorato de Indios y Chinos del Arzobispado de México en el siglo XVIII (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, 2014), 53.]
2. [Cisneros cites proof that up to three autos were enacted upon Natives of the region in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, the number increased and more than half of these autos took place in Mexico City. However, SBO shows that this practice was extended outside the Novohispanic capital to the countryside. See Gerardo Lara Cisneros, ¿Ignorancia invencible?: superstición e idolatría ante el Provisorato de Indios y Chinos del Arzobispado de México en el siglo XVIII (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, 2014).]
3. [Alejandro Cañeque, “Theatre of Power: writing and representing the Auto-de-fé in colonial México,” The Americas, Vol 52, No. 3 (1996): 326
. ]