What is the Botafumeiro and When Can I see it in Santiago de Compostela?

The Botafumeiro is one of the most captivating traditions within the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This large censer, renowned for its impressive size, is suspended from the cathedral dome and swung majestically by means of a pulley system.

As it arcs through the air, the Botafumeiro dispenses clouds of incense, filling the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with a rich fragrance. The origin of this tradition dates back centuries, and its purpose resides not only in ritual purification during mass but also in providing a sensorial experience unique to the pilgrimage’s culmination.

Witnessing the Botafumeiro after walking the Camino de Santiago in action is a highlight for many pilgrims and visitors to the cathedral. Its use is traditionally reserved for specific liturgical celebrations, such as Christmas Day, the Feast of Saint James on the 25th of July, and the Epiphany on the 6th of January.

During certain times, such as the Pilgrim Masses, the Botafumeiro is hoisted and swung, presenting a spectacular display. My recommendation for those eager to see the Botafumeiro in action would be to time your visit accordingly or enquire with the cathedral’s administration, as groups can sometimes request its use for special occasions.

The Santiago de Compostela Botafumeiro is the largest censer in the world, weighing 53 kg, measuring 1.50 m in height, and is pulled up to 20 meters before being swung.

It is normally on exhibition in the library of the cathedral, but during certain important religious events, it is attached to the pulley mechanism and filled with 40 kg of charcoal and incense.

In the Jubilee Years, whenever St James’s Day falls on a Sunday, the Botafumeiro is used in all the Pilgrims’ Masses.

Eight red-robed tiraboleiros pull the ropes and bring the Botafumeiro into a swinging motion almost to the roof of the transept, reaching speeds of 60 km/h and dispensing thick clouds of incense.

One irreverent explanation of this custom, which originated more than 700 years ago, although incense has been used in Catholic rituals from the earliest times, is that it assisted in masking the stench emanating from hundreds of unwashed pilgrims.

Historical Significance of the Botafumeiro

My investigation into the Botafumeiro’s historical roots leads me back to the medieval period. Originating in the 12th century, the Botafumeiro has since become a symbol woven into the fabric of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral’s rich history. This large thurible owes its inception to the necessity of purifying the air during liturgical ceremonies due to the throngs of pilgrims arriving after long travels.

The earliest mention of the censer is in the Codex Calixtinus, a 12th-century illuminated manuscript, which serves as a guide and homage to Saint James, whose remains are said to be housed in the cathedral. The Codex, which is preserved in the cathedral’s library, contains sermons, texts, and liturgical passages pertaining to Saint James, accentuating the Botafumeiro’s spiritual significance.

Furthermore, the Botafumeiro gained royal attention when King Louis XI of France made a donation for a silver thurible after completing his pilgrimage to Santiago in the 15th century. Although the original silver thurible no longer exists, this royal patronage underscores the international significance and reverence the Botafumeiro has attracted over the centuries.

Design and Mechanics

In exploring the famed Botafumeiro, we’ll delve into its expert craftsmanship and the intricate mechanics behind its operation, which contributes to its grandeur and historical significance within the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Materials and Craftsmanship

The Botafumeiro is a stunning example of metalwork, traditionally crafted from an alloy of brass and bronze. This gives it durability and a beautiful sheen that catches the light as it swings. Over time, the art of making such pieces has involved the skilled hands of gold and silversmiths; these artisan craftsmen have often adorned the Botafumeiro with exquisite decorative details.

Operational Mechanics

This awe-inspiring censer functions through a complex system engineered with precision. Tiraboleiros are responsible for the manual operation, hoisting the Botafumeiro into the air with ropes traditionally made of hemp, although today, ropes made of synthetic materials may be used for added strength and reliability.

Pulleys attached to the dome of the cathedral allow the Botafumeiro to swing in a sweeping arc, dispensing incense across the vast interior, engaging viewers in a spectacle of both spiritual and cultural enrichment. These pulleys and ropes must be meticulously maintained to ensure seamless operation during liturgical ceremonies.

Ceremonial Use

It’s an extraordinary experience for pilgrims and visitors alike to mark religious occasions with its iconic swinging.

Liturgical Calendar

At specific times throughout the year, the Botafumeiro is used during the liturgy at the Cathedral of Santiago. This holds true especially on:

  • 6th Jan – The Epiphany
  • 31st Mar – Resurrection Sunday
  • 19th May – Pentecost
  • 23rd May – The Apparition of the Apostle – Clavijo
  • 25th Jul – The Day of Saint James
  • 15th Aug – The Assumption of Mary
  • 1st Nov – All Saints’ Day
  • 24th Nov – Feast of Christ the King: This takes place on the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent in November
  • 8th Dec – Immaculate Conception
  • 25th Dec – Christmas Day
  • 30th Dec – Arrival of the Holy Apostle

The Pilgrim’s Mass

The Pilgrim’s Mass is a significant event at the Cathedral where the Botafumeiro might make an appearance. It is typically attended by those who have completed their pilgrimage.

This mass is a vibrant celebration of faith, where I’ve seen the silver thurible fill the space with aromatic incense, creating an unforgettable atmosphere. Its use at this mass isn’t daily but is common on religious festival days and can be requested by groups who provide a donation.

Special Occasions

Outside of the liturgical calendar, the Botafumeiro also swings on special occasions and can be arranged by request. Typically, a substantial donation is required to cover the costs. During these events, the turibulum magnum, as it’s sometimes known, is filled with incense and swung across the transept of the cathedral in a grand arc.

Cultural and Religious Symbolism

The Botafumeiro is primarily associated with cleansing and purification. Historically, incense has been used in religious ceremonies to purify the surroundings and to accompany prayers, symbolizing the ascent to the heavens. When I witness it swinging majestically, dispersing incense, I can’t help but feel a sense of the divine.

I also can’t overlook its significance during the Feast of Saint James on 25th July. Saint James, or Santiago, is the patron saint of Spain, and his feast day draws numerous pilgrims. The ritual importance can be traced back to a legendary victory at the Battle of Clavijo, where Saint James is said to have appeared – an event known as the Apparition of the Apostle-Clavijo.

Safety and Incidents

Safety considerations and the history of incidents caught my attention, particularly because of the blend of reverence and caution they inspire.

Historical Accidents

Throughout its centuries of use, the Botafumeiro, a large turifer or incense carrier at the Cathedral of Santiago, has experienced a few accidents. Historical records mention notable incidents:

  • 1499: During a visit by Catherine of Aragon, the Botafumeiro flew out of the transept window.
  • 1622: Once again, the Botafumeiro detached and caused a stir among the congregation.
  • 1937: The last recorded incident occurred, further underscoring the need for strict safety measures.

These accidents have been attributed to the failure of the ropes, which were then made from hemp and would traditionally be tied using sailor’s knots.

Modern Precautions

José Losada, the last man who took on the role of manually swinging the Botafumeiro, introduced changes after the 1937 incident to enhance safety. Modern precautions include:

  • Material Upgrade: The ropes are now made of a synthetic material that offers greater strength and resilience.
  • Regular Inspections: The Botafumeiro and its support system undergo regular safety checks to prevent malfunctions.
  • Professional Team: A dedicated team, well-versed in the operation and safety protocols, oversees each usage of the Botafumeiro.

These precautions ensure that the awe-inspiring display of the Botafumeiro at the Cathedral De Santiago can be witnessed without fear of accidents.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, I’ll answer some common queries regarding the Botafumeiro and the occasions when you can witness this magnificent spectacle at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

What is the significance of the Botafumeiro in Santiago de Compostela?

The Botafumeiro is a large incense burner and an integral part of the liturgy in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Historically, it was used to cleanse the air as hordes of pilgrims arrived, but it also symbolizes the spreading of the faith and the pilgrims’ prayers ascending to heaven.

How often does the Botafumeiro swing during services at Santiago Cathedral?

The frequency of the Botafumeiro’s operation can vary. Traditionally, it is used during specific liturgical celebrations or on request when groups make a donation for the service.

Can you tell me the schedule for viewing the Botafumeiro in 2024?

As of 2024, you can expect to see the Botafumeiro in action during the main religious events and feast days. It would be wise to check the cathedral’s official schedule closer to your visit as the dates for some feasts alter yearly. Alternatively, they are listed above on this page.

Are there any special occasions when the Botafumeiro is guaranteed to be used?

Yes, there are specific solemn Masses during which the Botafumeiro is always used. These include The Epiphany on the 6th of January, Easter, and the Feast of Saint James. Additional dates may include certain important religious occasions and feasts specific to the cathedral’s calendar.

Read more about what to do in Santiago de Compostela and more here about Santiago Cathedral.

1 thought on “What is the Botafumeiro and When Can I see it in Santiago de Compostela?”

  1. Our Camino Family had the privilege of seeing the Botafumeiro in action on 10/23/2022 after completing the Camino Frances. It is amazing to see it in action.


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