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The Botafumeiro

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

The name of the huge censer of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is Galician. It's a combination of "botar" (here: expel) and „fume“ (smoke).

Censer - Botafumeiro

However, speaking of one botafumeiro is not quite right. At this moment there are acutally three such censers or thuribles in Santiago de Compostela: one from the year 1851, made by the goldsmith José Losada from a silver coated alloy of brass and bronze (Photo 1), and two copies made of silver in Madrid in 1965 and 1971 by the shop of Luis Molina Acedo. The first copy can be seen in the window of a shop in the Rua del Villar in the old town of Santiago (Photo 3). The second copy was donated to the cathedral in 1971 by the "Hermandad de Alféreces Provisionales" and is kept in the cathedral's chapter room. It was used in the cathedral during the year 2006, while the original from the 19th century was being restored in Madrid.

So the oldest botafumeiro in Santiago today is the one from 1851. It's predecessor was used from the year 1554 and was possibly donated by French king Luis XI. in the 15th century. And supposedly it was also the French who robbed it in 1809: Napoleonic troops during the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814).

Counterweight - Alcachofa

Visitors to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela might also find another device hanging from the rope: the so-called "alcachofa" (artichoke) - sometimes also referred to as the "repollo" (cabbage). It's an egg-shaped object about 50cm high whose metal leaves overlap in a way that reminds of an artichoke or cabbage. The alcachofa is tied to the rope that carries the botafumeiro as a weight in order to stretch it and keep it straight. The leaves of this elaborate counterweight can be opened and candles placed inside. Until the beginning of the 20th century the alcachofa with candles was used during Holy Week in stead of the botafumeiro.

Censer - Botafumeiro

Even though the botafumeiro of Santiago's basilica - with a height of 1,50-1,60 m and a weight of 54 kg - is not the world's biggest censer (Lohne in Germany claims to have one that's 3,21 m high and weighs 500 kg) it's quite a spectacular event to see it fly across the cathedral's transept from the Azabachería Portal to the Platerías Portal at about 65 km/h. Its exceptional size is explained by its liturgical function as well as by the necessary distribution of pleasant fragrances in a church in which pilgrims in great numbers used to eat and sleep until 1786.

The eight professionals who make the botafumeiro fly are called "tiraboleiros" (turned into Galician from the latin thuribularii). Under the instruction of the current "tiraboleiro mayor", Armando Raposo, they pull the rope with practice and skill so that the censer almost touches the ground at the lowest point of its trajectory. Due to the great stress on the 66 m rope it had to be replaced in 1999, 2004 and 2007.

The excitement to see the botafumeiro in motion is increased by the fact that four accidents occured over the centuries. In 1499 Catherine of Aragon stopped in Santiago on her way to England when she witnessed how the censer slipped of its rope and crashed through the windows above the southern portal to land on the Platerías square. There are reports of further minor incidents in the years 1622, 1925 and 1937. No one was ever hurt.

According to a spokesman of the cathedral's chapter each operation of the botafumeiro costs 240 Euro. That's why its usage is generally limited to 30 occasions in years that are not Holy Years. However, additional masses with botafumeiro can be ordered by groups who carry the cost. In 2007 this possibility was made use of in close to 100 occasions.

(Sources: Information provided by "tiraboleiro mayor", Armando Raposo / Interview with the owner of the first copy of the botafumeiro from 1965, Mr. Luís Villar Otero / Precedo Lafuente, Jesús, La catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Madrid 2004 / Prieto, Javier, Ciudades con encanto: Santiago de Compostela, Madrid 2004 / www.lavozdegalicia.es / en.wikipedia.org / de.wikipedia.org)

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