The Swinging of the Botafumerio in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Seeing the botafumerio swinging through the soaring Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the highlight of every pilgrims spiritual journey on the Camino de Santiago.

"We can cultivate the soul of a pilgrim where we stay open to a way of life that is always open to newness. Ultimately pilgrimage is an outer journey in the service of this inner transformation." ~ Christine Valters Paintner

The Spanish word for thurible, or incense-burner is botafumerio. In Gallego, the language of the region, it is botafumeiro, just a slight difference in the spelling of the word, yet enough to make it very confusing! Throughout this article, I will use the Spanish spelling of the word. 

What makes the incensory at the cathedral to St. James in Santiago de Compostela so special is the size of it, and the amount of Frankincense it burns. As the cathedral absolutely fills with smoke, the sweet aroma surrounds you as it soars to amazing lofty heights. I have never seen anything like it and its mystical charm is unparalleled. You will be filled with wonder, and your eyes may even fill with tears, as mine did!

When I ended my pilgrimage on the Camino Inglés, I arrived early enough to see the pilgrim's mass at noon. I was lucky indeed, that on that very first day in Santiago de Compostela, the celebrated botafumerio made an appearance at the noon mass.

While I was able to attend three more pilgrims' masses in my stay in Santiago de Compostela, only two of the four masses included the swinging of the huge incense burner. I am told that the decision to swing the botafumerio, is entirely based on sufficient contributions by benefactors and/or pilgrims in advance. This, most likely would require a large tour group contributing toward seeing it swing on a particular day and time.  I haven't been able to validate this, but somewhere I learned that it costs the cathedral about 300 Euros (approx. 400 USD) each time it swings.

More recently, I learned that the botafumerio can also be seen every Friday at the 7:30 mass, as a "Pilgrim's Offering." This offering is a tribute from the city of Santiago to all the pilgrims who end their Camino here. The botafumerio is also swung on fixed holy days. To see a complete list of these days, you may go to Camino de Santiago forum by clicking here.

Regardless if you planned well enough or  if you are lucky enough to witness the swinging of this giant incense burner, you will never forget it!

Photo Journal of the Swinging of the Botafumerio

I am re-living and chronicling "The Swing" in my photos to follow. I took so many of them, and several below are a bit fuzzy from the low cathedral light and the fact that I took all of these on my cell phone. I chose to include the fuzzy ones when I thought it added to telling of the story, so please forgive me!

When the Tiraboleiros (those who's job it is to swing the incensory) first come walking out in their red robes, an excited murmur is heard through the crowd! We all know that the botafumerio is about to swing! Here they are, below, getting into position for the giant incense burner to be lit.

Tiraboleiros Get Ready to Swing the BotafumerioTiraboleiros Get Ready to Swing the Botafumerio

Several of the tiraboleiros walk up the steps toward the altar to light the burner, shown in the photo below.

The Botafumerio is Being LitThe Lighting of the Incense Burner

The chief Tiraboleiro lights the botafumerio, as you can see in the next picture, that I took from my first day's side view. The cathedral begins to fill with the lovely incense of Frankincense.

The Frankincense is LitThe Frankincense is Lit

Then, the chief Tiraboleiro initiates the swing as the rest get into position. The way they pull down on the rope to create the soaring pendulum effect, once the butafumerio starts swinging, is absolutely amazing and awe inspiring. This can be seen best on the video clip at the end of this article, which I was able to capture very well!

The Swing of the Botafumerio is InitiatedInitiation of the Swing

Here, again from the view at the front of the altar, the thurible can be seen, swinging, smack in the middle of the photo, right at the level of the altar table. Can you pick it out?

The Swinging BotafumerioThe Swing and High Altar

From my advantageous side view, I got this shot. No trouble picking it out here!

The Botafumerio in MotionThe Botafumerio in Motion

Here is yet another great shot from the many, many I snapped. And we thought we had lousy seats, on the floor, way off to the side of the altar. We were about 5 minutes late to the noon pilgrim's mass. This turned out to be the most serendipitous thing.

However, we did push our way through the milling tourists around the side of the pews and just sat ourselves down on the floor by the ropes that would allow us to enter no farther! I didn't mind sitting on the floor throughout the mass, as this was my reward!

The Swinging of the BotafumerioAnd Still it Swings...

After the incense burner swings for many swings, filling the cathedral's every corner with Frankincense, the Tiraboleiros move from the center of the altar towards the side (towards me!) and the one on the near side slows the momentum of the swing by walking towards it.

The Slowing of the Swinging BotafumerioThe Swing is Slowed

Then they all stand closely together, very still as they grip the ropes to slow the botafumerio's swing.

The Botafumerio Swings Slows Even MoreFinal Motions of the Swing

I cannot seem to adequately describe this event in words. All I can say is that it is very moving and mysterious, despite the tourists with their cameras, iPads and phones, all trying to capture the moment.

As you will see, in the video clip below, the ethereal music, with the nun's clear voice, the aroma of incense, and the visual of the giant swinging butafumerio, combined with the long pilgrimage to get to this special place, moved me to tears. I wanted to stay in this moment for longer than it lasted.

This is why, I still find myself unable to play the video just once, but over and over again. It is my feeble attempt to re-live the moment as it happened and to re-live my emotions on that day.

My YouTube Videos of the Event

This very short video clip, below, is the one I managed to take between the many still photographs I took on my first day in Santiago de Compostela at my very first pilgrim's mass. The second time I saw it swing, I was too far away for a good video, and I also wanted to experience the event to the fullest (though I couldn't help sneaking in a few photos)!

Here it is in all its glory! Enjoy!

The very next year in 2015, I completed my second Camino to Santiago de Compostela, on the Camino Primitivo. I arrived at the cathedral one and a half hours early for the Friday mass at 7:30 p.m. and barely got a reserved seat for pilgrims in the cross nave!

The botafumerio swings every Friday evening, so go early to get a great seat, and don't forget to take your Compostela for the reserved seating.

Here is my video, from this vantage point, in the cross nave. I filmed the entire event. Enjoy!


My wish is that you too, can one day make your own pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, this amazing spiritual site, and see the marvel of the botafumerio swing! May your days be filled with the awe and wonder of all things on your own personal, spiritual journey.




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