Histories of New Spain: Heresy, Excommunication, and Punishment for using religious objects

Religious images, figures of saints, and crucifixes were prohibited by the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition during the second half of the 18th century. Find out why.

Histories of New Spain: Heresy, Excommunication, and Punishment for using religious objects
Inquisitorial edict on the use of religious images and prohibiting the use of crucifixes as personal adornment, 1767. Image and text: AGN

Veneration practices in Catholic worship have been subject to control and regulation by the Catholic Church. In New Spain, during the second half of the 18th century, the reproduction, commercialization, and use of religious images, figures of saints, and crucifixes by the parishioners was forbidden by the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, as they were considered to promote an inadequate veneration of the "True God" and fed acts of sorcery and superstition.

Today it is very common to see outside churches and Catholic religious temples the sale of stamps with images of various saints and their respective prayers on the back, paintings of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ or representations of Yahweh, as well as objects for personal use such as necklaces or bracelets that preponderate the symbolism of the crucifix as the main ornament, Or what to say about the altars or murals that stand out in different streets of the city, that although today they are part of the cultural and commercial daily life, in the times of the New Spain these artifacts and practices were prohibited by the same church.

These restrictions were carried out by the Court of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which in 1767 issued an edict prohibiting the use or creation of religious images, as well as the use of crucifixes as a personal adornment since the normalization of these actions bothered the high religious leaders who sought to reorganize the functions of the secular clergy.

The Holy Office based this edict under the principles of watching over and taking care of the purity of the holy religion and the proper way to venerate the "true God" and the saints since within the judgments issued by the Holy Inquisition several practices considered as part of witchcraft were detected where religious images or candles were used, as well as the use of crucifixes, which was considered as a superstitious action.

Likewise, they had detected the circulation of pictures and prints with satirical content towards Catholicism, as some were circulating in tobacco boxes or in dishes to serve food, in addition to seeing some people with embroidery, buttons, watches, and stamps with religious iconography, finally, there were also acts where holy sculptures were moved through the streets to ask for alms.

Therefore, the Holy Office asked the people who had in their properties or who possessed among their goods these items, to report them to give them the appropriate destination. To then pass on to the merchants and traders so that they would also deliver some merchandise of this nature, inviting them to denounce those who manufactured them, since they could only be sculpted, melted, elaborated, and exhibited in the churches, since they were the places destined to profess the true faith.

This edict was hung in all the doors of the churches since they were the most crowded places and located in the center of each town and jurisdiction, so there would be no pretext to excuse themselves in ignorance of the edict that explicitly stipulated that whoever did not comply with the dictate would be considered a heretic and excommunicated, besides having to pay 500 ducats (ancient gold currency) for the expenses of the Holy Office.