THE HUGE THURIBLE IN THE CATHEDRAL OF SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA IN GALICIA, SPAIN

[The Galician Botafumeiro]
[The Galician Botafumeiro]

When I and Fr. Bernardo Blanco, my Claretian friend, arrived on April 10, 1999 in Zamora, Spain; it was good that the community had earlier organized an excursion to the northernmost part of Spain which included a trip to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. And we immediately were listed as participants to the excursion.

We were riding a big bus and it took us almost 6 hours to reach Galicia after a lot of stop-overs in other parts of the northern provinces of Spain. But the main and most awaited destination of the excursion was that into the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

According to legend, it was the apostle Saint James the Great who brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula. It was similarly reported that in 44 AD, Saint James was beheaded in Jerusalem. His remains were reportedly later brought back to Galicia, Spain. Following Roman persecutions of Spanish Christians, his tomb was abandoned in the 3rd century. According to legend, Saint James’ tomb was rediscovered in 814 AD by the hermit Pelagius, after the hermit witnessed strange lights in the night sky. Bishop Theodomirus of Iria recognized this as a miracle and informed King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia (791-842 AD). King Alfonso II ordered the construction of a chapel on the site. Legend has it that King Alfonso II was the first pilgrim to the shrine. This was followed by the first church in 829 AD and then in 899 AD by a pre-Romanesque church, ordered by King Alfonso III of León, which caused the gradual development of the major place of pilgrimage.

In 997 AD the early church was reduced to ashes by Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir (938-1002 AD), the army commander of the caliph of Córdoba. This Muslim Spain commander then was accompanied on his raid by his vassal Christian lords, who received a share of the loot, while St James’ tomb and relics were left undisturbed. The gates and the bells, carried by local Christian captives to Córdoba, were added to the Aljama Mosque which was then put up in Cordoba, Spain. When Córdoba was taken by King Ferdinand III of Castile in 1236, these same gates and bells were then transported by Muslim captives to Toledo, to be inserted in the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo.

Construction of the present cathedral began in 1075 under the reign of King Alfonso VI of Castile (1040–1109 AD) under the patronage of Bishop Diego Peláez. It was built according to the same plan as the monastic brick church of Saint Sernin in Toulouse, probably the greatest Romanesque edifice in France. It was built mostly in granite. Construction was halted several times and the last stone was laid in 1122 AD. But by then, the construction of the cathedral was certainly not finished. The cathedral was consecrated in 1211 in the presence of King Alfonso IX of Leon.

The church became an episcopal see in 1075 and, due to its growing importance as a place of pilgrimage, it was soon raised to an archiepiscopal see by Pope Urban II in 1100. Thereafter, a university was added in 1495. The cathedral was expanded and embellished with additions in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

At the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, they have what is called as the TOURISTS’ MASS. And what was amazing and heart-throbbing is the sight of thick-muscled males entering the cathedral who thereafter held on to large ropes to hoist and swing a THURIBLE which seemed to me then, was as big as a BETTLE VOLKSWAGEN car. This scene came about at the point, if my memory serves me right, when the holy mass was about to start. I was sort of fearful then that a misstep or a mistake in the swinging could hit one of the concrete portals inside the cathedral, and such could certainly result in chaos. After the swinging has stopped, the thick-muscled males were lustily applauded.

The THURIBLE in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is called a botafumeiro, where incense is burned while smoke is expelled from the the swinging metal container. Actually, the name “botafumeiro” means “smoke expeller” in Galician. The botafumeiro is suspended from a pulley mechanism attached to the dome on the roof of the church . The Santiago de Compostela botafumeiro is one of the largest censers in the world, weighing 80 kg and measuring about 1.60 meters in height.

There is another larger thurible used in the other masses carried out in the cathedral, called “La Alcachofa” or “La Repollo”. The La Alcachofa/La Repollo is a silver-colored metal censer. What I perceive when I saw the THURIBLE in April 1999 was that it could have been the LA REPOLLO which is much bigger than the BOTAFUMEIRO.

As regards the ropes used in  swinging the THURIBLE, the ropes typically last about TWENTY (20) years before they have to be replaced. However, it was reported that recently a thicker rope than usual was used, and the extra rubbing produced premature wear of the rope. Therefore, this thicker rope had to be replaced sooner than had been expected, in 2004. Before 2004, the ropes were woven from hemp, or a type of grass called esparto, and made in Vigo, Spain. Since 2004, a rope made of synthetic material has been used.

Shovels are used to fill the botafumeiro, or the alcachofa/repollo, with about 40 kg of charcoal and incense. The thurible is tied to the rope with elaborate knots. The censer is pushed initially to start its motion. Eight red-robed thick muscled tiraboleiros (i.e. incense carriers) would pull the ropes, producing increasingly large oscillations of the censer. The thurible’s swings would almost reach the ceiling of the transept. Actually, it has been reported that the incensory can reach speeds of 68 km/hour as it dispenses thick clouds of incense.

At the top of the swing, the botafumeiro reaches heights of 21 meters. It swings in a 65 meter arc between the doorways at the ends of the transept of the cathedral. The maximum angle achieved is about 82° and that maximum can be reached after about 17 cycles, and would require about 80 seconds of swinging. The botafumeiro produces large volumes of smoke, dispensing thereby clouds of incense

Tradition has it that the use of the swinging censer in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral began in the 11th century. As arriving pilgrims were so tired and unwashed, it was believed that incense smoke had a prophylactic effect in the time of plagues and epidemics. Thus, incense burning became an important part of the liturgy.

There have been a number of accidents that occurred during the swinging of the botafumeiro over the years. Apparently at one time, the botafumeiro was attached to the rope with a hook which sometimes became disconnected.

One of the most renowned accidents took place during a visit of Princess Catherine of Aragon. Princess Catherine was on a journey to marry the heir to the English throne in 1499 and she stopped by the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. While it was being swung, the botafumeiro flew out of the cathedral through its high window. No one was reported to have been injured on that occasion.

Though it is claimed that the Galician botafumeiro is the largest thurible in the world, the fact remains that there is a larger thurible in Lohne, Oldenburg, Germany that reportedly weighs 500 kg and stands 3.21 meters in height.

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