Thursday, August 23, 2007

botafumeiro back in service

They call it the botafumeiro - the smoke-dispenser - and there's nothing else like it in the world: 1.5 metres in height, weighing over 50 kg, requiring a seven-man team, first to set it swinging, then to subdue it when it's had its little run.

No one can say for sure why the censer of the cathedral of Santiago is so massive, though it is commonly believed that it once served as a giant air freshener (not a bad idea when you consider that until 1786 the cathedral was also a place where the unwashed pilgrim masses ate and slept). The mechanism that sends it hurtling like a pendulum from one end of the nave to the other, at top speeds of 65 kph, dates back to the 16th century. The current botafumeiro of silver-plated bronze dates back to 1851; it replaced the 1544 edition, which was stolen (and doubtless melted down) by Napoleon's gangsters in 1809.

And yes, in case you're wondering, twice in its history, the botafumeiro has cut loose and gone for a flight. On the first occasion, in 1499, Catherine of Aragon was present. In fact, it was her sending-off party before her marriage to the to-be Henry VIII. Maybe to show what it thought of the marriage, the botafumeiro snapped its rope and went soaring through the windows into the Praza das Praterias. No one was injured on that occasion, nor on the second, which occurred in 1622.

Since then, the botafumeiro has had a clean safety record, and to keep things that way,it was taken out of service for two months earlier this summer so the cords could be replaced. We'll see how well these ones hold out. Thousands of pilgrims were disappointed not to see the botafumeiro in action, but she's swinging again, as this broadcast from TV Galicia, July 11, shows. (I know, it's not exactly news, but it's great footage and a chance to listen to the soft gallego tongue.) (patience, it's slow to load)

NB: the above photo was taken by Michael Krier and comes from the Confraternity of Saint James (CSJ) photo library, a terrific (and growing) source of Camino images.

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