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.

getting our Compostelas

since the first experience I detailed when starting blogging our Camino de Santiago was our arrival at the Cathedral, I’ll move on from that to what we did immediately after our giddy “I can’t believe we made its!” and celebratory pictures — standing in line at the oficina de peregrino to obtain our Compostelas, or certificates of completion. it is weird experience to happily stand in such a long line (about 40 minutes) with so many people who have endured similar experiences and are just as happy to stand in that same long line with you. some people wait to get their Compostelas after resting or attending the mass, but it seemed most of the people we stood in line with hadn’t made any stops or left any luggage behind before arriving at the oficina de peregrino.

the Compostela stems from the same idea as Jubilee years and plenary indulgences, wherein the faithful are given a degree of absolution from sin for completing a good work or act on behalf of the faith (such as making a trip to the Holy Land and/or dying on the journey). in early years, peregrinos would mark the completion of their trek by carrying a scallop shell as evidence they visited the tomb of Santiago in the cathedral. of course, merchants took to selling shells to peregrinos as they entered the city and the Church had to take steps to crack down on these practices, going so far as to threaten excommunication of anyone caught selling shells fraudulently.

during the 11th century, the Church began issuing particularly generous indulgences for those willing to participate in the reconquest of Spain; many claim that Pope Calixtus II (he of the Codex Calixtinus) granted Santiago de Compostela the authority to grant plenary indulgences to those who visited Santiago’s tomb in a Holy Year (when the Saint’s day falls on a Sunday), made a donation his shrine, gave confession, attended mass, and pledged to perform good works. the document that subsequently made that offer perpetual is now considered a forgery dating from the 15th century; the earliest documentation of indulgences granted for the Camino dates from the mid-13th century and the first Holy Year in which it would have applied stems from 1395.

the earliest documents to illustrate completion of the Camino were “evidential letters,” sealed and handwritten documents with confirmation of communion and confession pasted on, initially known as la autentica. it was handy in that it granted peregrinos access to the royal hospital established by the Catholic Monarchs in the 16th century; a Compostela entitled them to three nights lodging and attention for their various Camino-related ailments. (the building was converted into a Parador in 1954, but they still serve meals to the first 10 peregrinos to present their Comopostela every day.)

the Compstela became a printed documents in the 17th century and the communion and confession requirements were dropped sometime in the 18th century. the changes wrought by modern transportation innovation in the 20th century prompted the Church to require further evidence, by way of the stamped credencial, that peregrinos receiving the Compostela completed the last 100 kilometers by foot. after standing in line, you are directed to a counter where an official takes your name, (and inquires after your reason for undertaking the Camino — religious, cultural, spiritual, sport — to determine which version of the Compostela you’ll receive), translates it into Latin, and writes it on the form, the text of which has remained relatively unchanged for the last two centuries. though it’s technically free to obtain, donations are encouraged (and can get you a handy tube for storing your completed and irreplaceable memento, if you ask the nice volunteer line attendant politely).

I discovered today that the office keeps and publishes statistics about the numbers of peregrinos who arrive everyday. I couldn’t find a record of how many peregrinos received their Compostelas the day we arrived in Santiago, June 8, 2012, but they do have a break-down of all the people who did in the course of the year (over 192,000, about half of which came from Spain and just over half of which were male. for more details, check out this PDF.). or you can just find out how many people have completed their Camino today

we got Compostelas framed, along with our credencials and a map detailing the Camino Frances as we hiked it. they look spectacular.

O Cebreiro

our arrival in O Cebreiro presaged much for the duration of our Camino and gave us an early glimpse of how distinct Galician culture would prove. the town sits astride a pass some 1,239 meters up that divides León and Galicia; it was immediately evident, looking down the western slope, to see how much differently the weather would be as we crossed through Galicia and finally entered Santiago. while the sun shone brightly as we entered town a thunderstorm swept through during our typical mid-afternoon nap, leaving the air significantly cooler and the cobblestones slick as we made our way from the room in our casa rural back to the pub from whence we’d retrieved our key.

a Roman way station guarded the pass into Galicia during their rule over Spain, but evidence points to even earlier habitation and settlement. the village is known for a large selection of well-preserved palloza structures — circular buildings with conical, thatched roofs that share similarities to the round houses of Iron Age Britain, as well as with those found virtually wherever archaeologists have uncovered Celtic settlements (e.g. Ireland, Brittany, Scotland, Morocco and, at least in fiction, the Gaul of Asterix fame). Galician culture shares much with Celtic traditions of Ireland as is evident throughout O’Cebreiro, and anyone who’s visited both can attest to the similarities in climate. some of the earliest people to inhabit Galicia were of Celtic descent and known as Gallaeci and had according to Roman records, had a particularly warlike spirit that repulsed the more pervasive efforts of the Romans to assimilate them into Roman culture.

in recent years O’Cebreiro has become something of a tourist destination; in addition to the well-preserved pallozas, there’s a museum dedicated to the ethnographic heritage of the region with traditional tools on display. the village is also known for a miracle involving the Holy Grail that reputedly took place in the local church. as my cultural guidebook puts it, in the 14th century the “Grail”, an incredulous priest, and a snowstorm resulted in a miracle; basically, when a local peasant arrived in the midst of a snowstorm to hear mass and the priest berated him for his foolhardiness, the wine and bread he was holding turned into actual flesh and blood. in 1487, Pope Innocent VIII certified the veracity of the miracle and this, in addition to an 1486 visit visit by the Catholic monarchs as they made their way to Santiago de Compostela, did wonders for the prosperity of the village. (the royals donated two “large gold nuggets” and asked the Pope to transfer a degree of authority and autonomy church officials closer to the village and, presumably, more aware of the needs of the inhabitants and peregrinos.)

success of the village in the modern era, as well as many notable improvements to the Camino for peregrinos who traverse it today, stems largely from the work of one parish priest, Elías Valiña Sampedro. he wrote two books on the Camino (and introduced the concept of placing explanatory text on one page with a map facing) and is credited for implementing the ubiquitous (and ever reassuring) yellow arrows to mark the path. he also played a role in collecting and preserving artifacts of rural Galician culture as can now be seen in the museum. he’s memorialized with a bust in the square beside the church; we stopped for a look when we realized we couldn’t go look around the church as interrupting mass wouldn’t go over well.

jousting & the Puente de Orbigo

seeing the strategic importance of the ford over the river at Órbigo, the Romans established a town here, though it remained quite small for quite some time. over the centuries, towns grew up on both sides of the river, resulting in several names for the town based on the primary function of each — Hospital for its work with peregrinos, Encomienda for the Knights Templar, and Puente for the bridge.

the bridge is by far the most remarkable site in the town. its one of the longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain, dating from the 13th century though several of the arches have been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries (including two by the Spanish in an effort to halt Napoleon’s march sweep across Spain). the view from the bridge offers great views of the jousting lists, which appear to remain standing year-round though we saw a poster advertising jousts set to take place about two weeks after we walked through.

apparently, Órbigo is known for a particular joust, known as the Paso Honroso, that took place in the Jacobean Holy Year of 1434. a Leonese knight, Suero de Quiñones — scorned by his lady and wearing an iron collar as a symbol of being bound to her — sought and received permission from Juan II of Castilla to hold a special tournament wherein all knights passing the venue could be pressed into participating. those refusing to participate had to leave a token of their cowardice and wade across the river. the king proved highly obliging for the event, providing accommodations, having his herald pronounce the terms of Quiñones challenge throughout the kingdom, and “inviting” all the knights at court to participate. (as my cultural book describes it, everyone at court was bored of the “messy intricacies of court politics and gruesome dynastic wars and yearning for a simpler world they read about in … books of chivalry.”)

Quiñones chose to stage his tournament beginning in July 11, two weeks before St. James’ Day when the number of peregrinos, eager to receive the extra perks of completing the Camino during a Holy Year, was highest. during the several weeks the tournament lasted, Quiñones broke some “300 lances,” including some belonging to a Catalán knight named Gutierre de Quijada. in acknowledgement of Quiñones reputation, Quijada dressed in double-thick armor; Quiñones mocked this decision by dressing in light armor and a woman’s blouse which seemed like a good idea until Quijada knocked him to the ground. Quiñones continued to mock his opponent, dancing up and proclaiming the blow Quijada landed was nothing. shamed and embarrassed, Quijada and his men rode off, continuing on their way to Santiago. two weeks later on August 9, Quiñones wrapped the tournament up by removing his iron collar and proclaiming himself free of his lady and announcing his intention to compete the Camino as a sign of his new-found freedom.

twenty-four years after the tournament of 1434 and Quiñones’ Camino to Santiago de Compostela, he encountered Gutierre de Quijada while out riding. not one to let the previous, reputation-sullying encounter go, Quijada and Quiñones dropped their visors and rode at one another and after a few passes Quiñones fell once again but this time didn’t manage to spring up and dance around to mock the blow.

San Martín of Frómista

Frómista is best known for its church of San Martín de Tours. construction of the church and its accompanying monastery (which has since vanished) began in the late 11th century at the instigation of the widow of Sancho el Mayor. her family was known for building churches and also commissioned the Catedral de Jaca and San Isidoro in León.

architects from the Jaca project designed San Martín as a reduced-scale model of the cathedral — a house of worship worthy of the Camino. designed in the Romanesque style, the large, evenly cut stones were quarried elsewhere and transported to Frómista; it also features an octagonal cupola, rounded apses, and remarkably detailed corbels and square metopes supporting the roof. the over 300 grotesques depict animals, vegetables, geometric knots and sirens (I thought I even spied a pineapple … but couldn’t decide whether that made sense in terms of chronology, trans-oceanic exploration, and native plants). 

those painstaking attentions didn’t hold out in perpetuity, however — by the 13th century the monks abandoned the monastery; several ownership changes in the next 200 years saw some additions and expansions to the structure but it began to decay starting in the 15th century and by the middle of the 19th century it was deemed unacceptable for celebrations.

that’s when things took an interesting turn: in 1894, the building was de-consecrated, restored, reopened and recognized as a National Monument. now it’s open to the public, as I mentioned, and draws scads of coach tours from all over Spain to admire it.

San Anton outside Castrojeriz

just before arriving in Castrojeriz are ruins of an old monastery and hospital de peregrinos — San Antón de Castrojeriz. Alfonso VII helped underwrite the original hospital and church in 1146, though the remaining buildings date primarily from the 14th and 15th centuries. hospices run by the Order of San Antón (Saint Anthony), sprung up all over Europe — first in France and later in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere — were known for their success in alleviating or curing various ailments, though ergot poisoning was chief among them. (ergot poisoning stemmed from eating fungus-infected barley bread and improved by a change in diet — i.e. no more barley bread and an increase in wine consumption — and physical activity — i.e. Camino.) 

although the building is mostly ruins, it does still function as an albergue during milder months when Camino traffic is heavier. the most impressive remnant of the original monastery is the archway spanning the Camino. peregrinos arriving too late to gain access to the hospital shelter under the archway for the night and monks would leave food in the niches that line the walls. while residents no longer leave vittles in the alcoves, peregrinos often leave notes to one another, held down by stones or other weights. we saw notes left for people in quite a few places, but nowhere as many little scraps of paper as here.
my books reference the remarkable artistry of the carvings lining the opposite side of the archway — in archivolts (curved ornamental moldings along the underside of the arch), which must have been truly spectacularconsidering how impressive they remain in spite of centuries of deterioration. at the west end of the ruins plaques featuring the insignia of the Order of San Antón remain, near what remains of the rose window and coats of arms from French and German families.

the view from St. Moritz

as you, my readers, might know, I usually try to fill my posts with lots of historically-relevant information about my travels. this post will focus more on the pictures.

as I’ve mentioned, Olomouc is a fantastic town. there’s lots to see and do and has a refreshingly un-touristy feel to it. one of the first places recommended to me upon reaching my hostel was the tower of the St. Moritz Cathedral (seen here). from the top, there are spectacular views of the town and surrounding area. the church was built between 1412 and 1540, and the tower up which I climbed is a remnant of a 13th century structure. my first attempt to climb the tower was thwarted by the conclusion of a funeral, complete with tubas and other appropriately somber brass instruments. later (after climbing the tower), I stepped in to see what the church looked like; I don’t recall ever being in a church during post-funeral clean-up, and it was rather interesting. women were sweeping up petals from the flower arrangements, picking up items left behind by mourners; one of the women stopped to answer her cell phone while cleaning. it was also interesting to see a thoroughly work-a-day church that’s somewhat down-at-the-heels and in need of repairs. there was even a sign out in front tracking donations to repair the roof. apparently the annual International Organ Festival is only enough to keep the organ in good repair … (the festival occurs in September every year; the Cathedral’s organ is “Moravia’s mightiest”, though I missed it by some weeks.)

the climb up the tower, while worth it, was the most terrifying climb I’ve ever made. the first portion sticks to the stone steps of the original tower, but the second part gives over to open-grate metal stairs that, while sturdy, rendered my knees quite weak. I’ve never had a particular problem with heights, but something about those stairs that nearly prevented me from mounting them. it’s rather hard to describe — something about being able to see how far it was to the level below, clinging to the exterior wall with a growing certainty that those stairs won’t hold your weight …but eventually I emerged through the flap door onto the roof. and the panoramic views were worth it.

Dolni namesti from St. Moritz,
City Hall on the left, Plague column on the right

astronomical clocks, pt. 2: Olomouc

despite the radiance of the Prague Clock, I found the clock in Olomouc (along with almost everything to do with the town) equally or more impressive and much, much less touristy. part of this stems, as alluded to in recent posts, from Olomouc’s interesting relationship with the realities and after-effects of communism, lasting realities that one can see with the city’s own Astronomical Clock.

also dating from the early 1400s (1420 in this instance), clock-makers remodeled and updated the Olomouc clock every century or so until, in 1945, as in Prague, the retreating Nazi army blasted the hell out of the clock, leaving only a few pieces to start a collection in the nearby history museum. the new communist regime proved keen to rebuild the clock, but naturally eschewed the religious aesthetic of the destroyed clock for one more representative and suitable for the ideal(ized) socialist state. rather than kings and saints, the clock features athletes, workers, farmers and scientists. while the calendar face still contains a listing of saints days, it also lists important dates in communist history, such as Stalin’s birthday.

after the end of communist rule, the new democratic regime elected to remove and/or destroy much of the statuary and public art associated with or a product of the socialist state. the remarkable nature and detail of the Olomouc clock, however, saved it from destruction and, as I said, it’s absolutely fascinating to behold. when compared to the clock in Prague, the mosaic background of the Olomouc clock sets it apart — and above, for me. the Olomouc clock has the lengthy chronology and the same weight of history, but with the additional, intriguing dimension provided by the social-realist redesign.

and perhaps even more winningly, standing and waiting for the noon display in Olomouc, I didn’t have to contend with anyone for a good view. well, no one apart from a pack of three-foot tall kindergartners in yellow safety vests on a field trip. but they didn’t do much to obstruct my view.

astronomical clocks, part 1: Prague

the Astronomical Clock is perhaps the most iconic image of Prague. it is certainly one of the most visited sites in the city, particularly at midday when people crowd into the square next to the Town Hall and crane their necks for a glimpse of the noon display. the oldest part of the clock — the mechanical clock and astronomical dial — dates from the early 1400s (1410). the current clock has three components: the astronomical dial, which includes depictions of location of the Sun and Moon; a calendar dial with ornate medallions representing each month; and the Apostles that parade past the two doors at the top (closed in the picture) to mark each hour. (for more on how to read the clock, check out the Clock’s Wikipedia page.)

for centuries, legend held that renowned the clockmaker called Hanuš, or Jan of Ruze, created the clock and refused to share the designs with anyone. when the city elders heard rumors that Hanuš planned to construct an even more intricate and elaborate clock in another city, they had him blinded so that no other city could compete with their Clock. taking revenge, Hanuš damaged the clock such that no one could ever repair it to its initial, smooth working condition. unfortunately, documents uncovered in the 1960s proved this legend simply that; while Hanuš possibly did repair work the clock, the man who constructed the mechanics of the astronomical dial was actually Mikulas of Kada, working in cooperation with Jan Sindel, a professor of astronomy at Charles University.

a tale of revenge from a bitter clockmaker makes a much better story as to why the Clock broke down so routinely, especially when it more or less broke down all together in the early 18th century and thereafter remained motionless for nearly a century. retreating Nazis set fire to the buildings on the southwest side of the Old Town Square, severely damaging the Clock in 1945. once again, restoration took place and within three years the improved mechanics had the clock chiming out Central European Time (rather than Old Czech Time, wherein 24 marked sunset, a time which varied by up to four hours depending on the season.)

(if you’re inclined, a better explanation of the Prague Clock.)

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Sedlec Ossuary

hands down, the Sedlec Ossuary qualifies as the oddest sight of my trip. during the 13th century, an abbot from the oldest Cistercian monastery in Bohemia (in Sedlec) returned from Jerusalem with a pocketful of dirt, which he sprinkled in the monastery’s burial ground. because of this new religious consecration, the cemetery became a highly desirable location for burial among people throughout Central Europe. already packed with tens of thousands of bodies because of its association with Golgotha, the devastation wrought by the Plague during the 14th century overwhelmed the cemetery and bodies were simply piled up. in the space of only a few years, some 30,000 people died and sought burial at the Sedlec monastery.
around the turn of the 15th century, a chapel was constructed in the midst of the burial grounds and bodies displaced during excavation were placed in the ossuary beneath the chapel. for several centuries, the surplus bodies simply remained beneath the chapel, but when the Schwarzenberg family purchased the monastery in 1870, they enlisted a local woodcarver (František Rint) to use the bones to a more creative effect. 
the result of his efforts draws thousands upon thousands of people out to Sedlec every year. in addition to four pyramids of bones standing in each corner of the underground vault, Rint produced an altar, monstrances, and the Schwarzenberg coat of arms all with bones. the most remarkable piece of the collection, however, is the bone chandelier that hangs in the middle of the ceiling and contains at least one of every bone in the human body. when confronted with such magnitude of human mortality, it became somewhat hard to understand the implications of what my eyes wanted to tell me. it felt a very medieval way to confront death — inevitable, coming much sooner than one would like, a wherein the physical body loses importance because the spiritual essence has moved on to the afterlife. why place importance on the physical when such remembrances might carry profound suffering? of course, it could also be evidence of elite callousness, using the earthly remains of the anonymous masses that filled the vault of the new family chapel to create something unique and buzz-worthy.
whatever the rationale or motivation behind the project, the result remains truly remarkable, if profoundly, profoundly macabre and unsettling.