The arrival of a new Compostelan Holy Year and the Xacobeo 2021 will bring back to the Santiago Cathedral one of its most iconic rituals. One of the most awaited ones: the return of the flight of the Botafumeiro, the huge incense burner used since the Middle Ages to purify the temple, always full of pilgrims.
After almost two years of no activity due to the construction work taking place inside the Santiago Cathedral, the Botafumeiro will return to the central nave of the temple in December. More specifically, during the Apostle’s “Traslatio” ceremony that will take place the last day of the year, marking the start of the Holy Year.
Today we get closer to the history and ritual of this impressive object sailing through the skies of the Cathedral for the past 800 years.
A medieval air freshener
The famous Botafumeiro of the Santiago Cathedral is a big silver plated brass incense burner, over 150 centimeters tall and weighing over 50, almost reaching 100 kilos when it is loaded with incense.
Its origin is uncertain but it already appears in the Codex Calixtinus under the name of Turibulum Magnum, so we know it was already in the Cathedral during the XII century. Its function was no other than purifying the Cathedral of Santiago in light of the amount of pilgrims that arrived from all parts of Europe.
We must remember that in the Middle Ages a great number of churches and cathedrals on the Camino harbored pilgrims, so bad smells concentrated in temples. Here lies why it was necessary to use incense in order to get rid of the smell.
The size of the Botafumeiro at the Santiago Cathedral is due to the large dimensions of the temple, as well as it being the end of the Camino, concentrating a large number of pilgrims that concluded their pilgrimage to Santiago. What we are talking about is some kind of medieval air freshener that, fortunately, made it to our days.
Throughout all these centuries there were several incense burners. Nowadays two are kept on the Cathedral’s Chapter Library. The oldest one is from 1851 and is the one that’s currently being used, and the second one is a silver replica made in 1971.
Ritual in the Cathedral of Santiago
Even more fascinating than the Botafumeiro itself is the ritual of its flight through the Cathedral for the past 800 years, really.
Eight men, the so-called “tiraboleiros”, are in charge of setting it in motion loaded with incense and charcoal. After tying it to a rope with three thick knots in front of the main altar, the “tiraboleiros” pump the incense burner by pulling the ropes with the help of a pulley system. A pendulum movement starts now taking the Botafumeiro from the central dome of the Cathedral to the side naves.
Originally, the Botafumeiro was hung on some wood beams crossed on the vault of the Compostelan temple. However, since the Rennaisance, Celma the master designed the current mechanism, based on the law of the pendulum.
That is how the Botafumeiro is able to reach in less than a minute and a half the speed of 68 kilometers per hour, forming an 82º angle. The flight of the Botafumeiro takes place after the communion whilst the Apostle’s Anthem plays on the baroque organs of the Cathedral. A total of 17 "see-saw" cycles take place, leaving an unforgettable memory for those who watch it.
When does the Botafumeiro work?
In case anyone has not seen it yet or wants to see it in action again, the Chapter of the Cathedral usually schedules the flight of the incense burner on these dates:
- Three Kings Day – Epiphany of the Lord (January 6)
- Easter Sunday
- Ascension of the Lord
- Apparition of the Apostle-Clavijo (May 23)
- Day of Santiago Apostle (July 25)
- Assumption of Mary (August 15)
- All Saints Day (November 1)
- Christ the King
- Immaculate Conception (December 8)
- Christmas (December 25)
- Traslatio of Santiago Apostle (December 30)
The Botafumeiro also works upon request in specific pilgrimages. Those who wish to see it flying can contact the Cathedral at the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The picture in this article belongs to Fernando García Riñón.
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