The Botafumeiro in operation by the Tiraboleiros

Botafumeiro: The Giant Spanish Censer Explained

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Reading time: 14 minutes

Botafumeiro: The Giant Spanish Censer Explained

Posted: | Updated:
Reading time: 14 minutes

The Botafumeiro in operation by the Tiraboleiros

What is the Botafumeiro?

Botafumeiro at rest
The Botafumeiro

Within the sacred walls of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, one of the most captivating and unique rituals in Catholicism takes place – the swinging of the Botafumeiro, an enormous incense burner.

This ornate thurible, weighing an impressive 53 kilograms (116.8 pounds) and measuring 1.5 meters (4 feet and 11 inches) in height, is a true icon of the cathedral.

As the Botafumeiro swings majestically through the nave, enveloping the building in fragrant clouds of incense, it represents a profound spiritual experience deeply rooted in the history and traditions of the Catholic Church.

Witnessing the Botafumeiro in action is an unforgettable and awe-inspiring moment for those who have completed their Camino pilgrimage and visitors, a tangible representation of the power of faith and the traditions that have shaped the spiritual fabric of Santiago de Compostela over centuries.

How is the name derived?

The name Botafumeiro comes from a combination of two words:

  • Botar: This word comes from the Galician language and means “to eject, to throw away, to expel.”
  • Fume: This word comes from Latin and means “smoke.”

So, literally translated, “Botafumeiro” means “smoke thrower.” This name perfectly captures the essence of this giant thurible, which swings through the cathedral, expelling clouds of fragrant smoke.

Where is the Botafumeiro?

The home of the Botafumeiro is located in the northwestern region of Spain. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a monumental Romanesque structure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This magnificent cathedral has been a pivotal destination for pilgrims embarking on the famous Camino de Santiago for centuries.

Its intricate stone carvings, soaring spires, and awe-inspiring architecture have become iconic representations of the city’s rich cultural and religious heritage.

The Archbishop of Santiago, in conjunction with the Chapter, oversees the religious and liturgical activities in the Cathedral, including the use of the Botafumeiro. See the timeline for a complete list of previous archbishops of Santiago de Compostela .

The Meaning of Burning Incense

In Catholic liturgy, incense holds deep symbolic meaning. The smoke from the burning incense represents the prayers of the faithful rising up to Heaven. The sweet-smelling fragrance symbolizes the pleasing aroma of Christ’s sacrificial offering to God.

Additionally, incense signifies purification and sanctification. As the aromatic smoke wafts through churches and surrounds the liturgical rituals, it is meant to purify the space and objects of worship while sanctifying the ceremony and prayers.

The use of incense connects Catholic rituals to ancient practices and evokes a feeling of the transcendent and sacred. It creates an atmosphere of mystery, solemnity and reverence fitting for prayer and Divine liturgy.

Botafumeiro History and Origins

The use of incense burners, or thuribles, can be traced back to ancient religious ceremonies and rituals across various cultures and belief systems. In the Christian tradition, the burning of incense has been a symbolic act of purification and a representation of prayers rising to the heavens since the early days of the Church.

Early use

The Botafumeiro’s origins in Santiago de Compostela can be traced back to the 12th century, when the first documented use of a large incense burner is recorded in the Codex Calixtinus, on display in the building.

However, it is believed that smaller thuribles were used in liturgical ceremonies even earlier, following the burial of St. James the Great’s remains in the late 9th century.

One theory is that the primary purpose of the botafumeiro is to disperse incense throughout the church, intended to counteract the disagreeable odour of pilgrims who arrived at the Cathedral after lengthy journeys without bathing.

During this era, there were no hostels or guesthouses where pilgrims could rest or bathe. Consequently, the Cathedrals of the Camino were the only places where pilgrims could find shelter for the night.

Many of these pilgrims, who hadn’t bathed for extended periods, congregated here, resulting in a rather unpleasant odour. Incense was employed to neutralize this malodour.

Given the large number of pilgrims visiting the Cathedral of Santiago, a sizable incense burner was required to effectively combat the smell. This is why the Santiago botafumeiro is so large.

Evolution and modifications over time

The Codex Calixtinus first mention of Botafumeiro
The Codex Calixtinus

Since it was first mentioned in the Codex Calixtinus, where it’s called the “Turibulum Magnum” over 800 years ago, the Botafumeiro has undergone several modifications and improvements.

In the 16th century, a pulley system was introduced to raise and lower the incense burner, allowing for more elaborate swinging patterns.

One of the most significant modifications came in the 17th century when the Botafumeiro was redesigned by the Galician metalsmith José Regueiro.

Regueiro’s design, which is still in use today, featured an intricate system of pulleys and counterweights that enabled the Botafumeiro to swing in a pendulum-like motion across the entire length of the nave, reaching heights of up to 21 meters (68 feet).

In the 19th century, under the supervision of architect Ventura Rodríguez, the Botafumeiro underwent further enhancements, including the addition of eight incense burners to the main thurible, allowing for more smoke and fragrance to fill the cathedral during ceremonial swings.

In the present day, two exist; one is a brass piece from 1851 by José Losada, which replaced the one taken during the French occupation and is typically used during ceremonies.

The second Botafumeiro is a silver replica of the former, gifted to the Cathedral by the Provisional Second-Lieutenants in 1971. It is only taken to the transept when in use, and otherwise stored in the Chapter Library.

Design and Construction

The Botafumeiro is a masterpiece of metalwork, crafted from a combination of precious and sturdy materials.

The main body of the incense burner is made of brass, a durable alloy of copper and zinc, chosen for its strength and resistance to corrosion.

The intricate decorative elements, however, are crafted from silver, a precious metal that adds a touch of elegance and beauty to the design.

Dimensions and Weight

The Botafumeiro is a colossal piece of metalwork, standing at an impressive 1.6 meters (5.2 feet) in height and weighing a substantial 80 kilograms (176 pounds). Its substantial size and weight are necessary to create the pendulum-like motion that allows it to swing across the entire length of the nave.

Intricate Carvings and Decorations

The surface of the artwork is adorned with intricate carvings and decorations that reflect the rich artistic traditions of the region.

These decorative elements, meticulously crafted by skilled artisans, depict religious symbols, floral motifs, and intricate geometric patterns that pay homage to the building’s Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles.

One of the most notable features is the eight incense burners that encircle the main body of the thurible. Each of these smaller burners is a work of art in itself, featuring detailed engravings and design elements that complement the overall aesthetic.

Engineering Behind the Swinging Mechanism

The Botafumeiro in operation
Botafumeiro in operation

The swinging mechanism is a true marvel of engineering, designed to create a mesmerizing pendulum-like motion.

This mechanism was the brainchild of José Regueiro, a Galician metalsmith who, in the 17th century, introduced an ingenious system of pulleys and counterweights.

Regueiro’s design allowed the Botafumeiro to swing across the entire length of the nave, reaching heights of up to 21 meters (68 feet) and creating a truly awe-inspiring spectacle.

The system consists of a series of ropes and pulleys that are operated by a team of eight men, known as “tiraboleiros” (incense pullers), who work in perfect synchronization to set the massive thurible in motion.

This engineering feat not only adds to the theatrical nature of the ritual but also ensures the safety and control of the swinging motion, preventing colliision with the walls or pillars.

When is the Botafumeiro used?

The swinging of the Botafumeiro takes place during specific religious solemnities and feast days. It can also operate for pilgrimages that have specially requested it.

To request the Botafumeiro write an email to: [email protected] .

The scheduled occasions include:

The EpiphanyJanuary 6
Easter Sunday (Resurrection Sunday)Varies
The Feast of the Apparition of the Apostle at ClavijoMay 23
The Feast of St. James the ApostleJuly 25
The Assumption of MaryAugust 15
All Saints’ DayNovember 1
The Feast of Christ the KingVaries
The Immaculate ConceptionDecember 8
ChristmasDecember 25
The Feast of the Transfer of the Remains of the Apostle St. JamesDecember 30

Please note that the dates for Easter Sunday, Pentecost, and The Feast of Christ the King vary each year.

Ritual and Ceremony

Botafumeiro in full flight
Botafumeiro swinging from the ceiling

The ritual of swinging is a carefully choreographed ceremony that unfolds with precision and solemnity. Before the ritual begins, the eight incense burners surrounding the main thurible are filled with a special blend of incense made from aromatic resins and woods.

As the Mass or liturgical service commences, a team of eight men, known as the “tiraboleiros” (incense pullers), take their positions at the ropes attached to the pulley system. At a specific moment during the ceremony, the tiraboleiros begin to rhythmically pull the ropes, setting the massive Censer in motion.

The Botafumeiro starts to swing gently at first, but as the tiraboleiros increase the force and speed of their pulls, the thurible’s arc grows wider and higher, reaching heights of up to 21 meters (68 feet) and spanning the entire length of the nave. The buildup of momentum creates a mesmerizing pendulum-like motion that fills the sacred space with thick, fragrant clouds of incense.

Role of the “Tiraboleiros” (Incense Pullers)

The tiraboleiros, or incense pullers, play a crucial role in the operation of the Botafumeiro. These skilled individuals, often recruited from the local community, undergo extensive training to master the intricate art of pulling the ropes in perfect synchronization.

Their movements are choreographed with precision, as they work in unison to control the speed, height, and arc of the swing. The tiraboleiros must also possess physical strength and endurance, as the ritual can last for several minutes, requiring sustained effort to maintain the pendulum-like motion..

Cultural and Religious Importance

The Botafumeiro has become an iconic symbol of the city of Santiago de Compostela, inextricably linked to its cultural identity and religious heritage. For centuries, the ritual of swinging the colossal incense burner has been a source of pride and fascination for the local community, attracting visitors and pilgrims from around the world.

Significance in the Camino Pilgrimage

The Camino de Santiago, is one of the most famous and spiritually significant pilgrimage routes in the Christian world. For millions of pilgrims who undertake this arduous journey.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela represents the culmination of their pilgrimage, and witnessing the Botafumeiro in action is often considered a highlight.

The swinging of the Censer is not only a visual spectacle but also a symbolic representation of the pilgrims’ journey, with the incense smoke representing the prayers and sacrifices made along the way.

For many pilgrims, the ritual serves as a powerful reminder of the spiritual transformation and purification that occurs through their journey.

Ties to Catholic Tradition

The Botafumeiro is deeply rooted in the traditions and rituals of the Catholic Church. The use of incense in religious ceremonies dates back to ancient times and holds significant symbolism within the Catholic faith.

The swinging of the Ceseris a continuation of this tradition, representing the ascent of prayers to the heavens and the purification of the sacred space.

The ritual also reflects the Catholic Church’s emphasis on the senses, with the fragrant incense engaging the sense of smell and the mesmerizing motion of the incense burner captivating the sense of sight and smell.

This multisensory experience creates an atmosphere of reverence and solemnity, which creates a unique memory for worshippers and visitors.

Preservation and UNESCO World Heritage Status

Recognizing the cultural and historical significance of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and its traditions, including the Botafumeiro, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included it on their World Heritage List in 1985.

This designation not only highlights the cathedral’s exceptional universal value but also underscores the importance of preserving and protecting its traditions.

Numerous conservation and restoration efforts have been undertaken to ensure the continued operation and maintenance of the Censer, ensuring that this centuries-old tradition remains an integral part of Santiago’s cultural heritage.

Visitor Experience

To fully appreciate the majesty of the swinging ceremony, visitors must strategically position themselves within the building. The best viewing spots are typically along the central nave, where the pendulum-like motion of the thurible can be witnessed in its entirety.

The area near the Puerta Santa (Holy Door), which is only opened during Holy Years, offers a prime vantage point for observing the arc as it reaches its highest point. Additionally, the transept crossing, where the nave and transept intersect, provides an ideal location to witness the full sweep of the incense burner’s trajectory.

Tips for Witnessing the Ritual

To fully immerse oneself in the solemnity, visitors are advised to arrive at the cathedral well in advance of the scheduled ceremony. This not only ensures a good seat but also allows time to appreciate the architectural grandeur and prepare for the experience that awaits.

Visitors should also be mindful of the solemnity of the occasion and dress respectfully, adhering to the sombre dress code, which typically requires modest attire that covers shoulders and knees.

During the ritual, it is recommended to remain silent and respectful, allowing the fragrant incense and the rhythmic motion of the Vesibule to fully captivate the senses.

Has the Botafumeiro Ever Fallen?

With such an imposing object in motion, it’s natural to wonder about the safety and incidents associated with its use.

Historically, this huge censer has indeed suffered moments of failure. Notably, there have been three recorded instances where it fell or was flung due to the ropes giving way.

The Mishap of 1499: Catherine of Aragon’s Visit

Catherine of Aragon witnessed a Botafumeiro mishap
Catherine of Aragon

In 1499 during the visit of a distinguished guest, Catherine of Aragon, the censer apparently flew out of a door.

Catherine of Aragon, on her way to England to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, made a stop at the cathedral. It was during this visit that the Botafumeiro had one of its most dramatic failures.

As the Burner was being swung, filled with incense, the hook that attached it to the rope became disconnected.

The force of the swing propelled the incense burner out of the cathedral through the Puerta de las Platerías, one of the magnificent Romanesque doors.

This event must have been startling for those present, including Catherine herself.

However, historical records do not indicate any injuries resulting from this incident, which can be considered fortunate given the circumstances.

The incident in 1499 highlights the inherent risks involved in operating the giant Censer, especially considering the technology of the time.

The Incident of 1622

One such dramatic event occurred on May 23, 1622, when the Botafumeiro had a significant malfunction during its operation.

On that fateful day, as it was being swung, the ropes securing it suddenly gave way. The censer, filled with burning coals and incense, fell at the feet of the tiraboleiros, the individuals responsible for its operation.

The tiraboleiros, whose role is to pull the ropes and bring the Censer into a swinging motion, were caught off guard as the massive thurible plummeted down, narrowly avoiding a catastrophic outcome.

Fortunately, there were no reports of injuries from this incident, but it certainly highlighted the need for stringent safety measures.

Following the 1622 incident, improvements were made to the securing mechanisms to prevent such occurrences in the future.

The ropes, which were then made from hemp and traditionally tied using sailor’s knots, were scrutinized and replaced with more reliable materials as technology advanced.

The Last Known Incident of 1937

One of the most recent and significant incidents occurred in July 1937, during the tumultuous times of the Spanish Civil War.

On this occasion, the censer was being used in its customary manner, swung by the tiraboleiros to disperse incense. The ceremony was proceeding as expected until, suddenly, the cords holding it failed.

The failure of the ropes, which were likely made from hemp at the time, resulted in the Censer falling to the ground. The impact caused the burning coals and incense within to spill onto the floor, creating a hazardous situation.

The incident was alarming, not only because of the immediate danger it presented to those in attendance but also because it disrupted a sacred tradition integral to the cathedral’s liturgical practices.

This could have caused serious injuries had it struck any of the congregants or tiraboleiros.

Fortunately, there are no records of injuries resulting from the 1937 incident, which can be attributed to either the quick reactions of those present or sheer providence.

The event, however, underscored the need for stringent safety measures and the careful maintenance of the artwork and its components.

In response to this incident and others before it, the authorities took steps to improve the safety and reliability of operation.

The ropes, previously made from natural fibers like hemp, were eventually replaced with synthetic materials that offered greater strength and durability.

Additionally, the pulley system and other mechanical elements were upgraded to ensure that the Botafumeiro could be operated without risk.

The lessons learned from the 1937 incident have helped to preserve this ancient tradition, allowing it to continue as a symbol of faith.

These events underscore the importance of the rigorous safety measures now in place to prevent such mishaps.

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Final Thoughts

In the words of the renowned Spanish writer José María Merino:

The Botafumeiro is not just a piece of metal swinging through the air; it is the soul of Santiago de Compostela, rising and enveloping all who witness its majesty.