ritual and the botafumeiro

Compostelas in hand, we dropped our packs at our hotel, a neat, modern place just beyond the limits of the old city walls, then headed back to the cathedral for the noon peregrino mass — featuring the botafumeiro! 

while the exterior facade of the Cathedral (added in the 1750s) is quite stunning, the inside is pretty plain, particularly in comparison to some of Europe’s other grand cathedrals, though well kept and clean. I suppose, when one stops to think about it, it isn’t the fanciest cathedral in Spain by a long way, and perhaps not even the snazziest cathedral on the Camino; simply the most enthusiastically anticipated. I suppose the organ pipes jutting out over the heads of peregrinos in the middle aisle is rather striking…

we arrived “late” to the peregrino mass, a mere fifteen minutes before the hour, and all the seats, as well as the best of the standing room, were taken up by others eager to hear the Mass or see the botafumeiro in action, depending on religious persuasion. we still managed a decent spot standing near the intersection of the nave and transept which afforded us with a closer view of the action. they delivered a pretty standard and benign (at least to my non-Catholic ears) homily. it got somewhat heavy-handed and blunt at times about the importance of having the Church and Jesus in one’s life, which Andy was luckily immune to by virtue of not understanding Spanish. they began the service, however, by listing all the home countries (or cities, if they were from Spain) of the peregrinos who’d arrived in Santiago de Compostela in the previous 24 hours. (as I write this in January, 5 peregrinos arrived in Santiago today.)

as a non-religious person who could count on one hand the number of times attending a Catholic Mass of any variety, it was interesting to attend a Catholic Mass in a Catholic country with a group of people that includes those who walked at least 100 kilometers to reach Santiago. there was a young-ish woman standing immediately to my left who knew all the words and all the ritual of the Mass by heart; it was somewhat arresting to observer her and so many others go through the routine of their devotion. the last time I remember memorizing something to repeat it back on command was in my 10th grade French class — La Cigale et La Fourmi par Jean de la Fontaine — and I haven’t had reason to recite it in more than a decade and probably couldn’t muddle my way through it now.

homily concluded, they prepared for the event many people came to see — getting the censer to swing from the roof on onside of the nave to the roof on the other side of the nave. there are several vessels they use for this demonstration; we probably saw La Alcachofa (literally: the artichocke) in action that Friday in June. the Botafumeiro is an alloy of bronze and brass, plated with silver, was crafted in 1851 by a silver and goldsmith named Losada. it’s normally on display in the cathedral library. it’s one of the largest censers in the world and stands at 1.6 meters tall. La Alcachofa was crafted in 1971 and can be filled with about 40 kilograms of incense, which wafts over the heads of peregrinos in the transept as it swings from side to side at speeds of up to 68 kph. the top of the swing is about 21 meters up and takes about 17 swings by eight red-robed tiraboleiros to reach that speed, after about 80 seconds of pulling.

some hold that the use of the botafumeiro dates back to the 11th century; there was need to deaden the smell of the arriving peregrinos, weary, sweaty, unwashed and it was believed that the incense smoke also served the purpose of deadening “plagues” or epidemics carried in by peregrinos. in the 15th century Louis XI donated money to replace the silver medieval thurible; Napoleon’s troops stole it in 1809.

while it’s well secured by the ropes that the tiraboleiros pull on, there have been several instances of malfunction ranging from the botafumeiro flying out a window to simply tipping coals onto the ground. the most dramatic incident came when Catherine of Aragon stopped in Santiago while on her way to marry Arthur in England — during the swing, the botafumeiro flew out the Platerias window (over the south entrance to the Catedral), but somehow managed to not injure anyone. the last incident occurred in 1937. it was smooth sailing for La Alcachofa for our visit.

Author: Erica

born in the midwest with wandering feet.