The botafumeiro: the oldest swinger in town

Apologies for the bad pun in the title, but one of the most impressive of all sights for pilgrims who reach Santiago de Compostela is the swinging of the botafumeiro — the great incense burner that hangs from the ceiling of the cathedral.  The botafumeiro (‘smoke expeller’) is essentially a version of the thurible (hand-swung incense burner) used in many church ceremonies, but this one is swung through the transept (side arms of the cathedral) by eight fully-grown men.  It stands at about a metre high and (depending on who you talk to/what you read) weighs anywhere between 50 and 160 kgs (8–25 stone), and watching it swing from the vault at over 60km/h you’re seriously hoping that the rope holds, because if it flies off it’ll be the equivalent of being hit by a small car…

References to the presence of a botafumeiro in the cathedral date back to the thirteenth century and it’s likely that there have been a few different ones employed over the centuries, not least because of theft.  In 1809 Napoleon’s troops stole the then silver botafumeiro and an iron one was used until the current botafumeiro of silver-plated brass was made in 1851.  Its job is to fill the air with the smell of sweet burning incense, a symbol of the purity of prayers rising up and also supposedly to cleanse the air of the smell of unwashed peregrinos!  In pre-modern times ‘bad air’ was considered a major cause of disease and so the botafumeiro was a health measure as much as a liturgical one.

It’s not operated every day, given the expense of incense and the effort needed, but normally you’ll get your chance to see it at the end of the weekly Pilgrim Mass and other special occasions.  Find a place in one of the pews in the transept, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to breathe in the history!

For a short video of the botafumeiro being swung, taken by a French peregrino in 2011, click here:

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