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The Botafumeiro: An incense burner so large it needs a whole church to swing

J-P Mauro - published on 11/27/18

The tradition of swinging the gigantic thurible comes from the 11th century.

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain is a popular destination for pilgrims, as it is the final stop of the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. The crowds you encounter can also be attributed to the presence of the cathedral’s magnificent thurible, or incense burner, known as the Botafumeiro. Standing around 1.6 meters tall and weighing between 50 and 160 kilograms — depending on how much charcoal and incense is added — it is one of the largest censers in the world.

The name is derived from the combination of the Spanish words “botar” (expel) and “fume” (smoke). It was originally installed during the 11th century, in order to adequately fill the large cathedral with incense smoke faster than smaller hand-censers could accommodate. Aside from the prayerful aspects of burning incense, the Botafumeiro cleansed the halls of the acrid smell from the masses of unwashed pilgrims who gathered in the pews. Incense smoke was also believed to be a deterrent from plagues and epidemics at the time.

Read more:
What if we attach a GoPro to the Compostelan Botafumeiro?

In the 13th century an intricate system of pulleys was installed, which allows the massive censer to reach its heights of over 68 feet high, swinging in a 213-foot arc. In the 15th century, France’s King Louis XI donated money to see the old medieval thurible replaced, but unfortunately this new one taken by Napoleon’s forces during the Spanish War of Independence.

The oldest Botafumeiro in Santiago today was forged in 1851, made by the goldsmith José Losada from a silver-coated alloy of brass and bronze, seen in the above video. There are two other replicas in town, one of which rests in the window of a shop in the Rua del Villar in the old town of Santiago. The other was donated to the cathedral in 1971 and was used in 2006, while the Losada Botafumeiro was restored.

In order to make the grand censer swing, the ropes must be manipulated by a team of eight professionals, known as “Tiraboleiros.” Donning red robes, the men pull the rope just as the Botafumeiro passes them, which combined with its downward momentum sends it rising higher with each pull.

The process of setting up, filling, and swinging the Botafumeiro costs about 240 euros per appearance. As it is an expensive endeavor, its usage is generally limited to around 30 occasions per year. However, additional Masses can be ordered by groups willing to shoulder the cost themselves. In 2017, thanks to this option, the Botafumeiro appeared over 100 times.

At first glance, it appears to be a very dangerous spectacle, one that might catch an excited toddler who escaped their parent’s grasp for a closer look. There have been several accidents over the years, the most famous of which occurred in 1499:

Catherine of Aragon stopped in Santiago on her way to England when she witnessed how the censer slipped off its rope and crashed through the windows above the southern portal to land on the Platerías square.

Although mistakes have seen damages to the church, and coals pouring all over the altar floor, no one has ever been injured in the more than 800 years that this tradition has been maintained.

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