Behold the Botafumeiro: Santiago de Compostela’s Treasure

Now that my Camino journey is over – well, at least the daily walking part of it, I thought some might be interested in one of the most spectacular rituals associated with the pilgrimage. It is the Botafumerio, the largest incense burner in the world, that goes swinging across the transcept of the cathedral in Santiago at the end of the Mass. Its origin is connected with masking the body odor of earlier pilgrims who did not have ready address to soap and hot water. Once, it came loose from its moorings and flew out of the church. Here is a little history and a video.

By the way, I am planning to return to Spain in October of 2012 for a Classical Pursuits version of the Camino. The plans are well underway and I am happy to talk to any of you about what we will be doing.


The terminus of the much-heralded Way of St. James, Santiago de Compostela’s plays host to the Botafumeiro and also offers a taste of Galician life.

Together with Jerusalem and Rome, Santiago de Compostela formed a trifecta of holy cities in medieval Europe, and this ancient Galician city still marks the official end of the famed Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), a pilgrim’s road that snakes its way across northern Spain before terminating here. No wonder then that the town, especially during the summer, brims with modern-day pilgrims, easily distinguishable by a proudly displayed scalloped shell, milling about with the typical complement of tourists and, of course, the Gallegos (or Galicians to the English-speaker), the rugged folk of Northwest Spain famed as much for their fabled Celtic roots as for their aloof demeanor.

The Cathedral and the Botafumeiro

The old saying goes that one can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Well, that old saying has never laid eyes on the splendid Baroque façade of Santiago’s cathedral. The empty plaza in front of the cathedral provides ample room to admire the exterior which a bishop in the 17th century had constructed over the older, out-of-date Romanesque structure, as an ecumenical site details further whilst the cathedral’s official website provides great pre-op sketches.

As 2010 is a holy year, every high mass (12 noon) is a pilgrim’s mass featuring at its conclusion the sensational spectacle of the swinging Botafumeiro, a giant incense burner the size and weight of a Great Pyrenees hefted, via a pulley system, heavenward and then swung toward the rafters by a small army of priests. This device was used during the Middle Ages to perfume the church to mitigate the stench emitted by the hordes of pilgrims who, after hundreds of miles of trekking here to venerate San Yago (Saint James, patron saint of Spain), would have been rather ripe.

Today, the pilgrims’ mass is still standing room only, so arrive early for a good spot. While the service is interesting for, among other things, hearing the priests recite the litany of countries from which the various pilgrims hail, there can be no doubt that the show-stopper is the wondrous Botafumeiro, whose dance is as seductive as that of Salome must have been.

For those wishing to attend a service featuring the Botafumeiro outside of the holy year, it is best to double-check service details with the sacristy as the inclusion of this instrument in ceremonies becomes much less frequent.

Read more at Suite101: Behold the Botafumeiro: Santiago de Compostela’s Treasure


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