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(pĕnĭtĕn`tēz), secret lay order in the U.S. Southwest, particularly New Mexico, noted for flagellating rites during Holy Week. It arose from the third order of the Franciscans and is sometimes called Los Hermanos Penitentes del Tercer Orden de Franciscanos. Although condemned in 1889 by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Santa Fe, Penitente customs have persisted in modified form in many of the small villages of New Mexico. Until recently, the annual ceremony involved the carrying of heavy wooden crosses by penitents, who were beaten by heavy cord. On Good Friday the rites culminated with a crucifixion. Penitente rites have been observed by very few outsiders, and the secrecy of the order prevents confirmation or detailed description of any present activities.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The Penitentes, or Los Hermanos Penitentes, is a semi-secret association of Roman Catholics in the American Southwest who have become well known for their extreme practice of penance in an effort to make reparation for their sins. Their practice centers on various forms of bodily mortification, especially FLAGELLATION, and culminates annually in a ritual reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus. Almost all members of the group reside in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

The practices of the Penitentes have been traced back to the medieval flagellants, specifically to the Third Order of Franciscans founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century. Unlike the brothers and sisters of the first and second orders of Franciscans, the Third Order were lay believers who continued to live a secular life but showed their commitments to Christ through a set of strict disciplines. That the group was early on called the Order of Penitents indicates the priority assigned to various penitential actions as vital elements in the discipline.

The Franciscans entered New Mexico in the sixteenth century, and for the next 300 years they remained a powerful force in the expansion and maintenance of the Catholic Church’s presence in the New World. However, through the early nineteenth century, as the territory passed from Spanish to Mexican and then American hands, the Franciscan leadership was stripped of its power and eventually disappeared. The Penitentes appear to have arisen partially to fill the vacuum of leadership in areas with little of no pastoral care.

As the movement emerged, it came to exist as a decentralized association of locally autonomous groups. The local fraternities select their own officers, with the hermano mayor or elder brother given extensive authority. The elder brother usually holds office until his death. Though a fewwomen have been admitted to a female auxiliary, the group is basically a male association.

The year-round practices of penitence become focused during holy week. It is during this time, for example, that new members are admitted to the group. The initiation ceremony occurs in the morada or council house. After satisfactorily answering a set of questions, the candidate proceeds to wash the feet of the other members, receives lashes from any members whom he may have offended in the past, and finally receives an incision in the shape of the cross on his lower back.

As the movement grew, it became known for its actions on Good Friday (the day commemorating Christ’s death in the Christian calendar), during which members conducted a public procession and most would flagellate themselves. Leading the procession would be one or more people carrying a heavy cross. The procession would culminate in the planting of the cross in the ground and the lashing of one of the members to it. Though this part of the ceremonies was conducted in private, at various times non-members have photographed or otherwise observed it.

The Catholic Church has officially distanced itself from the Penitentes, and on several occasions attempted to suppress it. As early as 1886, the archbishop of Santa Fe, for example, ordered the groups to stop flagellation and the carrying of the crosses. He distributed copies of the rules of the Franciscan Third Order and asked them to reformulate their activity in accordance with it. He was largely ignored, however. In spite of subsequent attempts to disband or reform the movement, it has persisted to the present day, and in recent years large crowds have been drawn to the sites of the processions.


Ahlborn, Richard E. The Penitente Moradas of Abiquiú. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.
Carroll, Michael P. The Penitente Brotherhood: Patriarchy and Hispano-Catholicism in New Mexico. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Henderson, Alice Corbin. Brothers of Light: The Penitentes of the Southwest. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1937.
Weigle, Marta. Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.
___ A Penitente Bibliography. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.


The Spanish word penitentes means "penitents" or "those who repent." In Spain and in some areas of the world colonized by the Spanish, a few people, often referred to as penitentes, observe old Good Friday traditions by inflicting physical suffering on themselves. They voluntarily undergo this suffering, or penance, for a variety of reasons (for more on penance, see Repentance). Some seek to express repentance for their own misdeeds, others to fulfill a promise made to God, Jesus, or the Virgin Mary in exchange for granting a particular favor, and still others to imitate the suffering of Jesus and thereby deepen their relationship with him (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin).


During the late Middle Ages, lay religious associations advocating penitential exercises involving physical suffering gained favor with many western Europeans. During the late fifteenth century, religious brotherhoods dedicated to the Passion of Christ, that is, the story of his suffering during the last days of his life, emerged in Spain. During Holy Week members of these associations walked in procession through the streets whipping themselves as an expression of repentance and piety. Other religious associations also established themselves around this time and adopted similar penitential practices. Some historians credit Franciscan and Dominican monks for fostering a religious mentality which encouraged lay Spaniards to undertake these kinds of physically painful penances.


In southern Spain religious brotherhoods, called cofradías, still play a large role in Holy Week observances. They sponsor religious processions in which they carry floats depicting scenes from the last days of Jesus'life through the streets. Other members of the cofradía, dressed in long robes and pointed hoods, walk in front of or behind the floats. Those who precede the float are called nazarenos, or "Nazarenes." While most of the nazarenos do not perform acts of physical penance, some do opt to walk barefoot through the city streets in these processions, during which the participants may be on their feet for up to twelve hours. Those who follow the floats, called penitentes, undertake various pain-inducing disciplines as a means of expressing repentance for their sins. Self-flagellation is a thing of the past in Spain, however. Instead contemporary penitentes may walk barefoot or in chains, and many carry heavy wooden crosses for the duration of the procession. Carrying the floats also constitutes a physical hardship since those who do so spend hours crowded into the small space beneath it, made relatively airless by heavy cloth draperies. Moreover, the floats weigh hundreds if not thousands of pounds and therefore each man shoulders a heavy burden (see also Spain, Easter and Holy Week in).

Southwest United States

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Spanish founded many colonies in different parts of the world. In some of these places Spanish missionaries and colonists planted the seed of similar religious practices. For example, in southern Colorado and New Mexico, areas once ruled by the Spanish, a secretive religious brotherhood called the Hermanos Penitentes, or "Penitent Brothers," emerged. The early history of the brotherhood remains unclear but some writers suspect a connection with the Third Order of St. Francis, an assembly of lay people associated with the Franciscan religious orders. Prior to the nineteenth century Roman Catholic authorities assigned very few priests to this area. During the nineteenth century, however, priests and other Church authorities arrived in greater numbers, determined to exert control over the population. They found the Brotherhood an entrenched element of local religious life. In addition to performing many acts of charity, the brotherhoods carried out Holy Week observances in which their members inflicted suffering upon themselves and each other as a means of penance and as an imitation of the sufferings of Christ. For example, they whipped themselves or, according to some reports, even volunteered to undergo crucifixion on Good Friday (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). Church authorities condemned the various chapters of the Brotherhood but were unable to eliminate them.

Today these associations, whose membership and traditions remain to some extent secret, still exist in New Mexico and Colorado. Their Holy Week observances are said to include several painful penitential exercises, including the carrying of heavy wooden crosses in lengthy processions, the infliction of small flesh wounds, and whippings. In addition, some participants crawl on their knees throughout the procession or wear a crown of thorns. Crucifixions, in which a man is tied rather than nailed to a cross, are said to take place on Good Friday. All this suffering has a spiritual aim. Members of the penitential brotherhoods believe that penance in the form of physical suffering brings them closer to salvation.

Latin America

Mexico City's Passion play provides young men with an opportunity to act as "Nazarenes" on Good Friday. The Nazarenes have vowed to follow Christ in a reenactment of the Passion story, trudging the fourkilometer (about two and one-half miles) route towards the site of the crucifixion barefoot, carrying heavy crosses and wearing crowns of thorns. Doing so for three consecutive years completes their penance. In 1999 more than 2,500 Nazarenes participated in the Good Friday procession (see also Mexico, Easter and Holy Week in).

In Colombia many penitentes march in Good Friday religious processions commemorating the Crucifixion. They express repentance for their sins or compassion for the pain inflicted on Jesus by bringing suffering on themselves. They may walk barefoot or in chains, whip themselves, or carry heavy crosses made of wood (see also Colombia, Easter and Holy Week in).


The Philippines, the only predominantly Christian country in Asia, was also colonized by the Spanish. Today flagellantes, people who whip themselves, still take to the streets on Good Friday. Moreover, a handful of people go even further and have themselves crucified on Good Friday as a means of atoning for their sins. Roman Catholic Church authorities disapprove of these bloody displays of folk piety but have been unable to stop them. Unlike the secretive New Mexico rites, however, the Filipino rituals occur in public places. Hundreds of tourists come to gawk at these displays of intense physical suffering.

In some parts of the Philippines, however, old penitential practices have been modified to suit current values. In the town of Palo, for example, a modern version of the penitentes, called tais-dupol, replaced the flagellantes in the late nineteenth century. The tais-dupol participate in a city-wide enactment of the Passion. This event takes place on Good Friday. Garbed in blue and white robes and hoods, they precede the religious processions, clearing the streets and holding back the crowds. Although they perform these duties barefoot, there is little else about the experience that might cause unusual physical suffering. This role is usually sought by young, single men who see it as an act of devotion that expresses their repentance for various misdeeds (see also Philippines, Easter and Holy Week in).

Further Reading

Arpon, Alvin Gz. "Pamalandong: Good Friday in Palo." Philippines Today 3 (June 2000). Available online at: Clynes, Tom. Wild Planet! Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin, eds. The Folklore of American Holidays. Third edition. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1999. Espinosa, Aurelio. "Hermanos Penitentes, Los." In Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Appleton, 1913. Available online at: Mitchell, Timothy. Passional Culture: Emotion, Religion and Society in Southern Spain. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Weigle, Marta. The Penitentes of the Southwest. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press, 1970.
References in periodicals archive ?
depends almost exclusively on one Penitente, Larry Torres, who has been a practitioner-observer for over 40 years and is perhaps the best informed representative of the group and keeper of its history.
The Morada, like the independent and hybridized Penitentes its name evoked, attempted to synthesize a number of different strands of poetry and fiction responding, in part, to southwestern landscapes and cultures, and also to the aesthetic impulses of international modernism.
Equally they had a light, contemplative touch when it came to the more penitent parts of this penitente.
Christophe Jeannot was a riveting Revivalist, legs taut as tongs, his heat steely, a red-ember authoritarian (in El Penitente he was pure charm).
Thus Claret's Nuevo manojito de flores suggests to the confessor that it is best to deal with sins against the sixth commandment first, because "porque por nuis encenagado que este el penitente en este pantano, camina despues nuis desembarazado" [the more mired the penitent is in this swamp, the more lightly he will travel once he has unburdened himself {emphasis in original}], but adds "pero por justos motivos tanto las preguntas como las respuestas en una materia tan resbaladiza se pondran en latin, para que no sirvan de tropiezo a los sencillos, ni de peligro a los inocentes" (Claret 1859:111) [but for good reason both questions and answers in such a slippery subject will be given in Latin, so that they do not hinder the simple nor present a danger for the innocent].
Yet, a review of the official record speaks about a penitente community comprised of "blood-curdling" flagellants that chose to crucify people during Holy week in the Christian calendar.
The religious meeting houses, moradas, of Penitente chapters are of especial symbolic importance.
Though O'Keeffe never spoke overtly about her faith, art historian Robert Rosenblum writes that she brought the same "passionate search for religious truth" to her Ranchos Church and Penitente Cross series that Van Gogh brought to his paintings of church towers.
Later on Loder and Dettori produce a dark horse in El Penitente, kept under wraps since an impressive Warwick victory in May.
The evening included Serenata Morisca, a short but lively Spanish-style dance performed by Rika Okamoto, El Penitente, after a sect of the American Southwest which believes in purification from sin through penance, with the dance presented as a story told after the old mystery plays in which the sinner receives flagellation as punishment, and Errand into the Maze, which, taking as its inspiration the myth of Ariadne and the Minotaurs, is seen as a symbol of the conquering of fear.
One of them impersonates maternal hysteria, another behaves like a penitente or executioner.
I Was and I Am Dust: Penitente Practices as a Way of Knowing.