Camino del Norte, el Fin (Part 2): Cathedral de Santiago and the gigantic Botafumeiro


November 6, 2015

Last day in Spain, continued:

After a wonderful tour of Finisterre and Muxía, we got back to Santiago just in time to attend the Friday night Pilgim’s Offering mass at the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, a service that honors the peregrinos arriving in Santiago.  The mass is held daily, but the Friday night service is special because the church brings out its gigantic Botafumeiro.

What is a Botafumeiro?  It’s a thurible, or censer, a metal container typically suspended from a chain and filled with burning incense for use during Roman Catholic church services.  But the Botafumeiro (the term is Galician for “smoke spreader”) is a bit different from your average thurible.  A typical censer is small and hand-held by the priest or other person performing the ceremony.  The Botafameiro, on the other hand, weighs 116 pounds, is five feet in height, and can hold about 90 pounds of incense and charcoal.  It’s also suspended from the ceiling of the cathedral–65 feet above the church floor–and instead of being operated by hand, it soars through the air by way of a pulley system.

The Botafumeiro is one of the largest thuribles in the world and the biggest of its kind in continuous use, although similar ones were used in other Spanish churches in the past.  Thuribles have been a part of services at Catedral de Santiago since the eleventh century, but it wasn’t until the 13th century that a pulley device was put into place, allowing for the use of a much bigger thurible.

Like other thuribles, the Botafumeiro is used during special religious ceremonies on Feast Days, but it’s so popular with visitors that the church brings it out during other services as well, including the Friday night Pilgrim’s Offerings mass.  We had been advised to arrive at the church early because Friday night mass fills up quickly.  We did just that, and our new friends Jose and Toni showed up a few minutes later, so I invited them to sit with us.  They are devoted Catholics, and since Dale and I are not, and the service was also in Spanish, Jose frequently whispered helpful explanations to us about the goings-on of the ceremony.

Before the service began, a nun with a beautiful voice entered the high alter and taught the audience a few key lyrics for hymns that would be sung during the service.  Apparently she is a common feature of the masses at the cathedral, for she also led the singing at the service Dale and I attended a few days prior.  We didn’t understand what she was saying, but she obviously had a good sense of humor because the crowd laughed multiple times.  It made me think of rock concerts where the lead singer runs through the chorus with the crowd before launching into a song.  This nun with the angelic voice was a rock star.  Even though we didn’t participate in the singing, it was a pleasure to listen to her voice soar throughout the enormous cathedral.

Once the service started, we just went along with the flow.  Messages were shared by the priest and by other important people in robes, prayers mingled with singing, there was frequent standing and sitting, and the Catholics in attendance received communion.  Even though we were a bit lost, the words and songs slid over and around us and blended together to form a pleasant experience.

And toward the end of the service, they broke out the Botafumeiro.

It’s an ornate, shiny thing made of a brass & bronze alloy and plated in silver.

To start the ceremony, several men lit the charcoal inside the Botafumeiro, and then one of the men gave it a push to get it started.

The rope used to pull the Botafumeiro, which is hanging in the high altar (in the background)

It took eight men, called tiraboleiros, to operate the pulley system and make the Botafumeiro soar.  They stood toward the back of the high altar and pulled the rope in unison.  It took several tugs to build momentum, but with the efforts of the men the Botafumeiro began to swing higher and higher, until finally it was soaring.  According to the cathedral’s website, the Botafumeiro swings in a 213-foot arc between the two ends of the transept and reaches heights of 79 feet; at the height of its arc it looked like it might just touch the ceiling.  Oh, and it can reach up to 70 miles an hour.¹

There was something thrilling about watching the Botafumeiro oscillate higher and higher toward the ceiling at such a dizzying speed, smoke trailing behind and leaving the scent of incense in the air.  I’m not sure how many people were in attendance, but the seats were full and it was standing room only, and every single one of us was rapt with awe.  The event seemed reckless and joyful and not something that I had imagined would occur at a Catholic mass.  I think these Spanish Catholics have a wild side!

Dale took video of part of the ceremony:


The potential for danger did cross my mind; after all, a heavy metal cylinder filled with burning charcoal was moving at high speed through a building filled with people.  What if it somehow became untethered?

It turns out that there have been accidents in the distant past.  Centuries ago, the Botafumeiro was attached to a hook (who in the world thought that was a good idea?) and there’s record of it coming detached at least once; other times the rope broke.  During one of these disasters, the Botafumeiro flew right out of the cathedral through an upper window, while another time it fell to the floor and spilled hot coals everywhere.  Fortunately, every source I read said that no one was hurt, and the current system is supposed to be very safe, as they use durable synthetic rope and a series of intricte knots to hold the rope in place.

I could have sat and watched the Botafumeiro swing for hours, but it only lasted a few minutes.  It was a brief, beautiful moment that reinforced a lesson we’re trying to learn from the Camino experience–to take in each moment as fully as possible, appreciate it, and then let it pass.  I’m just so grateful that we got to see it.

After the theatrics of the Botafumeiro, the service was over, but we were in for another special treat–a performance by several tunas, university musical groups who play instruments and sing serenades.  A hundred or more musicians attended the mass and then swarmed the high altar after the ceremony, where they launched into several songs, and the audience sang along.

The tuna tradition started in Spanish and Portuguese universities in the thirteenth century, when talented but poor students (called tunante, or tunos), came up with a way to capitalize on their musical talent and charm.  They roamed the streets, performing for people in exchange for food and money.  They also serenaded potential romantic interests outside of bedroom windows in the evenings.  These days, the tunos may still use their music to charm people, but their most important function is to celebrate and maintain old traditions.

The costumes that the tunos wore were traditional Spanish university garb, including black robes decorated with colorful ribbons, buttons, and patches.  They played songs as one large group in the church and then moved outside onto the cathedral steps after, where they broke into smaller groups.  Each tuna played a song or two and then marched down the steps and into the street, still playing (I guess going off to earn their daily bread).  The next group moved into position, performed on the steps, and then marched off.

One of the tuna groups, getting ready to march down the steps and into the street

I’ll admit that Dale and I were a bit confused as to exactly where these men came from.  Most of them were older, and Toni and Jose speculated that they were Santiago university alumni returning for a reunion, but at least one group, like the one in the picture above, appeared to be from outside of Spain (in this case, Mexico).  The intricacies of the situation were definitely lost in translation, but it was very festive, the kind of thing that I had hoped to see in Spain regularly!

After watching all of the groups perform, we parted from Toni and Jose.  They were returning to Málaga by plane tomorrow and we were headed to Portugal.  We will always remember them fondly, and their warmth has further motivated us to return to Spain and visit Andalusia.

Toni and Jose with me in the middle, after the  Pilgrims Offering mass.  Some members of the tuna groups are behind us in the high altar, having just finished their performance inside the cathedral


¹ Note: according to other sources I read, the Botafumeiro moves at a speed of 70 kilometers/per hour, which equates to around 44 miles, so I’m not sure whether the cathedral’s statistic on their website is a typo.  Either way, it was moving fast!

We’ve written a lot about Camino del Norte!  Read more of our Camino blog posts here.