Botafumeiro: The Most Famous Thurible in The World

Sep 8, 2023 0 comments

In the Santiago de Compostela Archcathedral Basilica in Galicia, Spain, hangs a very special thurible. It is so special that it has a name of its own— Botafumeiro, and people come from around the world to watch it operate.

What is a thurible?

A thurible (from the Latin word thuribulum) is a metal incense burner, or censer, that is used in some Christian churches during worship services. It consist of a metal or ceramic crucible where charcoal is burned along with incense to create a sweet-smelling aroma. The thurible is then hung by metal chains from a high enough point inside the church and swung through the air so that the smell of burning incense is adequately spread.

Botafumeiro in the Santiago de Compostela Archcathedral Basilica. Photo credit: JOSE LUIS HEREDIA/Flickr

What is the significance of the Botafumeiro?

The Botafumeiro is quite possibly the largest thurible in existence. It stands 1.6 meters tall and weighs 53 kg. When loaded with charcoal, it can weigh well over 100 kg.

The Botafumeiro is hoisted 20 meters up in the air from the central cupola of the cathedral, using a complex system of pulleys, by eight men dressed in red robes, called tiraboleiros. While the censer is still within reach, it is given a hefty push to impart a lateral motion. As the censer is raised, the oscillations become gradually larger. At the top of its swing, the thurible makes an arc 65 meters across and reach speeds of 68 km/h as it dispenses thick clouds of incense.

The sight of the Botafumeiro making large sweeping arcs around the cathedral is supposedly so hypnotic that some pilgrims pay as much as €450 to have a private thurible “performance”.

Preparing to hoist the Botafumeiro. Photo credit: Contando Estrelas/Flickr

Tiraboleiros pull the ropes. Photo credit: Contando Estrelas/Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Contando Estrelas/Flickr

The system of pulleys holding the Botafumeiro aloft. Photo credit: Fernando Pascullo/Wikimedia Commons

History of the Botafumeiro

The tradition of swinging censer in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral began in the 11th century with the aim of eliminating the unpleasant body odor of pilgrims who came to the Cathedral sweaty and unwashed after a long tiring walk. It was believed that incense smoke had a prophylactic effect at the time of plagues and epidemics. Of course, the burning of incense is also an important tradition across many cultures intended as a symbolic or sacrificial offering to deities, or to serve as an aid in prayer.

In the 13th century, the pulley mechanism was changed to allow greater loads, and thus a bigger thurible, to be hoisted up.

The Festivals of Santiago de Compostela: The Procession of the Relics. Art by Daniel Vierge (1851 – 1904).

In the 15th century, France's King Louis XI ordered a new thurible to be made out of silver. Unfortunately, this ornate vessel was stolen by Napoleon's troops in April, 1809, during the Spanish War of Independence (1808–1814). Consequently, a new thurible was made out of brass and installed in 1851. This is the thurible that is currently in use. Its name comes from the Galician language, where botar means "to eject, to throw away, to expel", and the Latin fume, meaning "smoke".

Isn’t it dangerous to have 50 kg of hot coals swinging 20 meters above the heads of visitors? It is, and on numerous occasions in history, the ropes have failed and the Botafumeiro have either crashed into the upper vaults or strewn hot coals in the floor below. On one occasion in 1499, the Princess Catherine of Aragon was on a journey to marry the heir to the English throne and stopped by the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. While it was being swung, the Botafumeiro flew out of the cathedral through the Platerias high window. Fortunately no one was hurt.

Aside from the Botafumeiro, the Santiago de Compostela Archcathedral Basilica has another large thurible that is used in the other masses carried out in the cathedral. It is called La Alcachofa (literally, 'the Artichoke') or La Repollo (literally, 'the Cabbage'). It was created in 1971.


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