Taos County, New Mexico
The Penitentes

This page contributed and copyrighted by Karen Mitchell.

To attempt any complete description of religious affairs in New Mexico, without mention of the Penitentes, would be to omit their most curious and unique feature. This secret society has existed for many years, and though disapproved by successive archbishops since the coming of Bishop Lamy in 1851, yet it continues to flourish in various sections of New Mexico, especially those that are remote from the railroads and modern influences. Geographically the society is confined to the northerly half of the State, and principally to the counties of Taos, Colfax, Rio Arriba, Mora, San Miguel, Sandoval, and Valencia. It extends into the southern counties of Colorado, which were settled years ago from New Mexico and constituted a part of it until included within the boundaries of the Centennial State when it was organized in 1876; and seems to be more powerful there than in any part of New Mexico itself.

The fundamental principle of these people is that sin can only be expiated by suffering, and that forgiveness can most surely be obtained by self- inflicted torture. Particularly are they to follow the sufferings of the Saviour on Mount Calvary, to the foot of the cross; and sometimes even by being raised upon the cross itself. While they hold secret meetings throughout the year, the more severe ceremonies and the processions which afford the only opportunity for outsiders to witness their sufferings, occur during the last week in Lent, increasing in intensity, especially from Wednesday, through Holy Thursday to a culmination on Good Friday. There have been many descriptions written of these ceremonies by those who have witnessed them.

The houses in which the Penitentes hold their meetings are called Moradas, and are usually plain adobe buildings, with no windows whatever, and only one small door as an entrance. Above the door, upon the flat roof, is placed a simple cross, which is the only sign that the building is dedicated to religious purposes. Sometimes the Moradas are built in the outskirts of a village, or by an adjacent roadside, in plain view, and with no attempt at secrecy; but others are placed on one side of a deep arroyo or canon, in a bend which cuts it off entirely from general observation. When thus located, in a rocky locality, the Morada itself is built of stone rather than of adobe.

The origin of the Penitentes of New Mexico has been the subject of much discussion for many years. The most obvious explanation was that they were a survival of the Flagellantes who flourished in various parts of Europe in the Middle Ages. This sect or society first made its appearance in Italy in the year 1210, and the superstition grew with amazing rapidity. St. Justin of Padua, in describing their rise, says that this religious excitement first appeared in Perugia, and soon overspread nearly all of Italy. Men of all ranks of life were affected, and old and young were to be seen following processions in the streets, many of them only half clad, but all carrying scourges made of leather thongs with which they lashed themselves on their backs until they were covered with blood; all the while weeping and imploring the forgiveness of God for all their sins. Not only in the day time, but also at night, hundreds and thousands of these penitents ran about the streets carrying lighted candles into the churches, where they prostrated themselves before the altar in an agony of grief and contrition. It seemed as if a kind of spiritual excitement permeated the whole people; and though the whole civil and ecclesiastical authorities frowned upon the movement, it could not be suppressed, but rather increased in its intensity. In 1260 a hermit of Perugia named Ranier organized the movement which had before been spasmodic, and soon the Flagellantes to the number of ten thousand were marching through the country bearing banners and crosses.

They soon spread across the Alps into Switzerland and Germany and found followers in Alsace, Bohemia, and Poland. The occurrence of the plague which raged in Germany in 1349 seemed to increase their zeal and the extravagance of their actions. The Chronicle of Albert of Strasburg tells us that a crowd of them would come to some public place, and then, placing themselves within a circle drawn on the ground, they stripped, leaving on their bodies only a breech cloth. They then walked with arms outstretched like a cross around and around the circle, finally prostrating themselves on the ground, and then rose, each striking his neighbor with a scourge armed with knots and four iron points, regulating their blows by the singing of hymns.

In some places they were called the Brothers of the Cross, and in others the Fraternity of the Flagellantes, but everywhere they seemed carried away with a tide of distracting frenzy. So extravagant were their actions that Pope Clement VI issued a bill against them, and the German bishops forbade their assemblages. This had an effect for a while, but in 1414 a leader appeared, named Conrad, who claimed to have a divine revelation commending the practice of public flagellation, and preached that there was no salvation but by a baptism of blood through the institution of scourging. At one time the Inquisition took action against the sect and caused ninety-one members to be burned at one time at Sangerhusen; but strangely enough the delusion, though temporarily quelled, soon broke out afresh.

In the sixteenth century there arose a great number of flagellating penitential companies, distinguished as White, Black, and Gray Penitents, and the movement became so strong that it included many nobles among its adherents and even King Henry III inscribed himself as an honorary member, and finally himself organized a new penitential brotherhood which was inaugurated with great pomp on March 25, 1575.

To a greater or less extent the Flagellantes were found in all southern Europe during the next century, and had processions on certain festivals in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The idea of those who believe that there is a connection between the Flagellantes of Europe and the present Penitentes of New Mexico, is that the principles and practices of the society were brought across the ocean at an early day, and when they died out in the central parts of Mexico they still survived in the rural districts of New Mexico, where the people were isolated from new ideas and continued to hold the beliefs and customs of their ancestors. The prevailing opinion however is that the Penitentes are a continuation and survival of the Third Order of St. Francis. That the Franciscans had introduced customs which could easily be exaggerated and corrupted into the Penitente excesses, even at a very early date, is evident from the words of Benavides, the great Franciscan custodian, in his celebrated report to the king in 1630; who quotes an Indian wizard, who was opposed to Christianity, saying, "You Spaniards and Christians are crazy and desire us to be so also. You are so crazy that you go along through the streets lashing yourselves like madmen, shedding blood," to which Benavides adds: "He must have seen some disciplinary procession of Holy Week, in some Christian Pueblo."

The Third Order of St. Francis is composed of laymen, and was very general among the people of New Mexico during all of the Spanish era. The Franciscan priests naturally and properly encouraged the growth of the Third Order, which sought to carry the principles of St. Francis of Assisi into the life of the laity; and for two centuries nearly every leading citizen became a member of the Third Order. This is seen by reading the wills made during that period, nearly all of which state that the testator was a member, and direct that the funeral shall be of a modest character according to the rules of the order. The usual form is substantially as follows: "I direct that when God, our Lord, shall see fit to call me out of this present life, my body be enshrouded in the habit of our father, San Francisco, of whose Third Order I am a brother, and that my funeral be modest [humilde]." This continued until the Mexican Revolution, when the Franciscans were forced to leave the field of their labors, and their supervision of those who constituted the Third Order. Thus left without regular government, but wishing to continue their organization, it would be natural that the old members should adopt such rules as seemed necessary, and almost equally natural that in time their zeal and enthusiasm would bring about excesses which would increase year by year. They called the society "The Brotherhood of our Father Jesus Christ," and sometimes "The Brotherhood of the Blood of Christ."

The principal officer was called Hermano Mayor--Chief Brother--and the members were divided into three degrees, to each of which there was an interesting initiatory ceremony. Those of the First Degree were only allowed to be present at meetings and to take part in devotional exercises; those of the Second Degree could hold office; and those of the Third Degree were strongly obligated to practice voluntary punishment, and to shed their own blood. All members were marked with a deeply cut cross on the back, made by a sharp piece of flint, and this wound was expected to be kept open during forty days. On each Ash Wednesday, all members were expected to reopen this cross and keep it open until Good Friday. It is during Holy Week, and particularly from Wednesday to Friday, that the special exercises take place, together with the processions and representations of the crucifixion. The most usual penance is with a braided rope of yucca (soap weed) or of cactus, terminating with a knot or ball of cactus, with which they whip themselves, throwing the cord first over one naked shoulder and then over the other, in such a way that the thorny extremity strikes in the same place in the middle of the back, which in a short time becomes a mass of gore; and the torment is almost insupportable. This is self- administered, sometimes within the Morada and sometimes in a procession, the penitents being preceded by a couple of musicians, who keep up a continual chant, and followed by a small company of friends to support the suffering in case they fall or faint.

The same procedure takes place in the penance of carrying the cross, which in some localities is the most usual. These crosses are made of roughly hewn logs of pine and are of great weight. The writer has counted as many as twenty of them piled against the wall of a morada in Taos, and the largest measured over seventeen feet in length. The end with the cross piece is placed on the naked shoulder of the penitent, the other end dragging on the ground; and he is then to carry it to some designated point, usually on the top of a hill, which represents Calvary. A rough road, through stones and other obstructions, is usually selected and the sufferer is soon exhausted by the weight, but must bear his burden until the goal is reached. Falls are frequent, and there have been reports of deaths from exhaustion, but these may be exaggerations.

Much ingenuity is shown in devising new forms of penance. In one Morada, in a sandy locality east of the Rio Grande, there is a kind of hand-cart or wheelbarrow with two small wheels, which easily sink to their centers. In this is a skeleton surmounted by a human skull, and when used, the cart is filled with stones so as to add to its weight. It is drawn by lines of cord that are carried over the shoulders and under the arms of the penitent, who is without clothes above the waist. In a very short time the cords cut through the skin and into the flesh, and then every foot of progress through the sand is a torture; but the prescribed distance has to be traveled regardless of the agony inflicted. Nothing but a feeling of fanatical enthusiasm and an absolute conviction that by such temporal suffering they are gaining forgiveness of sins and earning heavenly rewards, could induce any human beings voluntarily to endure such sufferings; and yet there never seems to be a lack of participants.

The Church authorities have repeatedly endeavored to suppress the society, or at any rate regulate its action. Archbishop Salpointe issued a stringent order on the subject on March 31, 1889; but while the Penitentes claim to be zealous members of the Church, the practices have continued almost unabated.

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© Karen Mitchell