Auto sacramental: what it is, origin, main characteristics, authors and more 


What is the auto sacramental?

Also known as liturgical drama or auto sacramentals, they are a sub-genre of the dramatic genre that focuses on the brief theatrical representation of religious themes, such as the life of the Virgin Mary, the redemption of Christ, the celebration of the Eucharist, among others. The auto sacramentales usually make allegory to characters that represent, for example, the sins of the human being, such as gluttony, envy, etc.

Often this type of play was performed during a religious festivity, either in the public square or in the church itself. Its beginning is given by a section that works as a kind of introduction and ends with the presence of dance and music accompanied by a final apotheosis.

Meaning of the Auto sacramental concept

As for its etymology, auto means act, so that an auto is a one-act piece. It links the term sacramental given that they were a type of representations that were dedicated to develop and present the sacrament, especially the Eucharist that took place during the day of the Corpus Christi towards the XVI and XVII centuries.

Definition of auto sacramental of the concept Auto sacramental

Liturgical plays or auto sacramentals can be defined as a type of short play that is performed with the purpose of contributing to the diffusion of the Catholic religion through allegorical characters and situations that link the experience of human life with teachings, precepts, commandments, punishments, etc., dictated by the doctrine.

What is the purpose of auto sacramentals?

This subgenre is based on religious themes, so that its main objective is to promote the dissemination of Catholic doctrine in particular, since its works use archetypal characters that generate commotion by the content, causing the viewer to draw his own conclusions about the situations that are exposed.

purpose of auto sacramentals

Origin of the Auto Sacramental

In its beginnings the liturgical drama or auto sacramental, was a type of theatrical and medieval representation that was catalogued as a religious representation, but also a representation of profane character. During the Middle Ages this type of representations were called mysteries, or also moralities, especially when their content was linked to the religious environment. They finally received the name of auto sacramentales around the 16th century.

With the development of this type of texts, compositions began to be created that reduced the narrative modality, where the playwrights increased the doctrinal and allegorical content, acquiring forms of writing in verse, as happened later on. Thus, by the 17th century another series of authors appeared, among them Pedro Calderón de la Barca, who cultivated the auto sacramentales and developed them by incorporating a much more delicate and elaborate language, expanding the mythological theme and enriching the representation through the use of elements such as revolving platforms, hatches and other tools to improve the scenography.

Within the classical form we can identify the presence of the psycho machia, a type of allegorical representation that confronts the abstract virtues of the human being with his own vices that are also personified, as happened with the play “The great market of the world” by Calderón de la Barca. This will be a fundamental element for the evolution and establishment of liturgical drama. Later Lope de Vega, among others, will also work on it.

Although at this time it became a very popular subgenre, around 1765 its representation began to be prohibited because it was considered that theaters were not appropriate spaces for the representation of the sacred mysteries, as well as the actors were unworthy comedians who could not express the Catholic religious content in this way.

Characteristics of the auto sacramental subgenre

To learn more about liturgical drama, let’s look at the following characteristics:


Primarily the auto sacramentals were a type of play whose content was based on allegorical drama, however, there were other series of liturgical dramas that did not involve the themes of communion in their compositions, as they focused on honoring Mary. Even so, these types of works did not neglect the apotheosis of the Eucharist, along with the allegorical aspect.

Knowledge of the author

The writing of liturgical works implies a knowledge of the author that involves both scenic and dramatic elements, without leaving aside some biological terms of great importance. That is why one of its most important exponents will be Pedro Calderón de la Barca, since he gathered all the necessary elements to develop this type of subgenre and consolidate its bases for posterity.

Place of representation

At the beginning, the auto sacramental plays were performed outdoors, especially in places such as the square, but they soon began to be performed also in the church and in theaters during the religious feast of Corpus Christi.

Number of events

Although in principle and in their majority the auto sacramental plays worked in only one act, they had the possibility of incorporating more to their composition. Plays of this character were performed on the day of Corpus Christi.

Types of auto sacramental

The auto sacramentals can have several divisions according to their particular content, so we can identify the following:


It focuses on the content of the sacred book of the Catholic Church to represent biblical passages.


This type of works focus on the knowledge about God, deepening and promoting His attributes and His perfection for the people.


This type is born from the Congregation of the Marian Clerics of the Immaculate Conception, where their dogmas and doctrines will be represented with a specific focus on the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God.


It relates the figures of the saints presenting a type of composition that develops the biography about the saints.

Most important authors and works

One of the most important authors of the auto sacramentales will be Pedro Calderón de la Barca, because by developing this type of pieces and providing them with great elements, he becomes one of the main exponents of the subgenre for posterity. From his liturgical plays we can identify “El gran mercado del mundo” and “La cena del rey Baltasar”. Other authors of this type of dramatic genre are Lope de Vega, Ángel Valbuena Prat, Diego Sánchez de Badajoz, Juan de Timoneda, Antonio Mira de Amescua, Tirso de Molina, José de Valdivielso, later Francisco Rojas Zorrilla, Agustín Moreto, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Francisco Bances Candamo, among others.

authors and works

Example of auto sacramental

The following is an excerpt from the play “El gran mercado del mundo”, written by Pedro Calderón de la Barca and one of the greatest exponents of the auto sacramental subgenre:


Mortals who do not yet live

and I already call you mortals,

for in my concept you are equal

before being you assist;

although you do not hear my voices,

come to these orchards,

that girded with laurels,

cedars and palms I await you,

because I want among all of you

to distribute these papers.

(The RICH, the KING, the WORKER, the POOR and the BEAUTIFUL, the DISCRETION and a CHILD come out.)


We are already at your obedience,

our Author, that it has not been

it was not necessary to be born

to be in your presence.

Soul, sense, power,

life, nor reason have we;

we are all unformed, we see ourselves,

we are dust at your feet.

Blow this dust, then,

that we may represent.


We are only in your concept,

we neither animate nor live,

nor touch nor feel,

neither good nor evil do we enjoy;

but, if to the world we go

all to play,

the roles can you give,

for on this occasion

we have no choice

to take them.